Dance diary. May 2024

  • Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship

Given the publication of my book, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer by Melbourne Books in 2020, I am always interested in the winners of the biennial award of the Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship. My book would never have been published without the generous donations I received via the Australian Cultural Fund, and from royalties owing to Fredrikson during the year I was struggling to assist financially with the book’s publication. The committee that administers the scholarship was hugely supportive throughout all aspects of the book’s production.

The 2024 winner of the Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship is Charles Davis who graduated from NIDA in 2014, and who has also studied architectural design at Monash University. He has designed for Sydney Theatre Company, West Australian Opera, Opera Queensland, Pinchgut Opera and other theatrical groups. As far as his input into dance productions goes, Davis was set designer for the Australian Ballet’s recent production of Stephanie Lake’s Circle Electric. Incidentally, another recipient of an earlier Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship, Paula Levis, designed the costumes for that same production.

  • Frank van Straten (1936–2024)

This is a somewhat belated comment on the death of Frank van Straten, who died in Melbourne in April 2024. Van Straten was an amazing historian of the theatre across a range of genres and was the first archivist at Melbourne’s Performing Arts Museum (now the Australian Performing Arts Collection). I remember him particularly for his hugely valuable contribution to Graeme Murphy’s Tivoli, a joint production between the Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company, which premiered in 2001 to commemorate Australia’s Centenary of Federation. Van Straten acted as historical consultant for the work, which honoured and celebrated the Tivoli circuit and the remarkable nature of its repertoire. His input helped make Tivoli an exceptional ‘dance musical’.

Cover image for Tivoli national tour 2001

Van Straten’s knowledge of theatrical history in Australia was vast and I recall a post on this website in which, in a comment, he helped with identifying a particular Sydney-based teacher working in the 1930s named Richard White. His books on Australian performing arts history, too, have often given me information that I had struggled to find elsewhere. He was a truly generous person.

I can’t call this comment an obituary, but for what I would call an obituary see the article in Stage Whispers. Listen, too, to van Straten discuss the nature of Tivoli performances as recorded by Philippe Charluet on film at this link. Oral historian Bill Stephens has also recorded an interview with van Straten for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. It currently requires written permission for access, but that may change in the near future following van Straten’s death. Here is the current catalogue link.

  • Backstage notes

Jennifer Shennan drew my attention to a recent article in The Guardian called Wings, Wigs and Wonder. It takes the reader backstage during a performance by Birmingham Royal Ballet and is called a ‘photo essay’. It has some interesting backstage images included within the text, which was written by Katie Edwards. Read at this link.

  • Recent Reading

In my dance diary for April 2024 I wrote about Deborah Jowitt’s recent publication Errand into the Maze. The Life and Works of Martha Graham, which to my mind was not always the easiest of reads, despite Jowitt’s extensive research and very strong dance background. As fate would have it, however, while mulling over Jowitt’s publication I came across an interesting article by Marina Harss, whose work I much admire, called On Point: Martha Graham’s Perfect Partnership with Isamu Noguchi. It’s available (at least for the moment) at this link.

Currently I am reading another of the books I bought at the recent Canberra Lifeline Book Fair—Isadora. A sensational life by Peter Kurth (Paperback edition, 2003). In an early page entitled ‘Press for Isadora‘, one comment is, ‘There is never a dull moment in Peter Kurth’s action-packed biography…’. True! Much of what is mentioned does not appear in other books about Isadora, or not nearly to the same extent. Nevertheless, with its different focus it provides another perspective on her life, perhaps with the word ‘sensational’, which appears in the book’s subtitle, emerging as characterising that different focus. Dance is probably not the major focus!

  • Press for May 2024

‘Dancers perform strong farewell to Ruth Osborne.’ Canberra City News, 17 May 2024. Online at this link

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2024

Featured image: Cameron Holmes and Maxim Zenin in Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. April 2024

This month’s dance diary is distinguished by two appointments to major dance organisations—the Australian Ballet School and the Royal Academy of Dance—and one major move by a dancer from Queensland to Switzerland.

  • Megan Connelly appointed as director of the Australian Ballet School

Megan Connelly has been announced as the next artistic director and head of school at the Australian Ballet School. She takes over from Lisa Pavane, who will retire shortly. Connelly will begin her role at the end of May 2024 and will initially work alongside Pavane so that a smooth transfer can occur.

The Australian Ballet School announcement reads in part:

The Artistic Director & Head of School is a strategic and creative leadership role responsible for artistic and educational excellence and student wellbeing. This key role requires deep experience within the art form, an understanding of ballet trends, strong national and international networks and expertise in elite ballet instruction and performance.

Connelly’s career to date has been extraordinarily diverse and her qualifications and experience, as set out in the media release from the Australian Ballet School, suggest she is the ideal person to take on the role.

  • Alexander Campbell appointed to lead RAD

Sydney-born Alexander Campbell, who received his early dance training at Academy Ballet in his home town, and who then went on to dance with Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet, has been appointed to lead the Royal Academy of Dance in London. He succeeds Gerard Charles who retired in 2023. Campbell began his tenure this month, April 2024.

Read more from the Royal Academy at this link.

  • Joel Woellner to join Ballet Zürich

Joel Woellner, principal dancer with Queensland Ballet since June 2021, has accepted a contract with Ballet Zürich, which is currently directed by Cathy Marston. He will start with his new company in August 2024 and will give his last performance with Queensland Ballet in Greg Horsman’s Coppélia in June. In a contribution to the just-released media statement Woellner comments, ‘It’s with mixed emotions I make this career change, but I look forward to the new challenges. This is not goodbye, but rather see you again soon.’

Portrait of Joel Woellner. Photo: © David Kelly

Woellner’s work with Queensland Ballet has always been eminently watchable. I especially enjoyed his recent performance as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But there are lots of other roles where he has shone. See this tag for my comments on Woellner’s work over several years.

  • International Dance Day 2024. The Message

Marianela Nuñez, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, delivered this year’s message for International Dance Day. See this link for the English version of the short message and this tag for comments about Nuñez on this website.

  • Recent Reading

The latest dance book I have read has been Deborah Jowitt’s biography of Martha Graham—Errand into the Maze. The Life and Works of Martha Graham, published early in 2024. I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the extensive research that went into this book. Jowitt, as a former dancer, understands the technical side of dance and describes so well each of the many dances that she includes in the book. But I have to admit that I found the going hard. Somehow the descriptions started to get tiresome to read as one followed another, followed another, followed another, and I longed for more about Graham’s personal life. That life made an appearance now and then but it just wasn’t a strong component. It could have added a less technical note to what is quite a long book.


Michelle Potter, 30 April 2024

Featured image: Portrait of Megan Connelly. Photo: © Pierre Toussaint

Dance diary. February 2024

  • Russell Kerr Lecture 2024

The annual Russell Kerr Lecture for 2024 took place in Wellington on Sunday 25 February. The lecture honoured Sir Jon Trimmer, esteemed artist who made a huge contribution to ballet in New Zealand, and who died last year. I was to give a short talk in which I planned, by focusing on images including some costume designs, to show how Jonty, as he was familiarly known, was able to inhabit a role so magnificently. Unfortunately there was an issue with the plane that was taking me to Wellington from Sydney late on Saturday. The issue was not so much the plane itself but the weather in Wellington as we attempted to land. We were in fact diverted to Auckland (at around midnight) and a situation developed where we were told to wait in the transit lounge until the plane could take off to Wellington (the next morning). Well, without going into the highly unpleasant details, I ended up flying back to Sydney on the Sunday thus missing the lecture!

One of the most interesting parts of the proposed talk, at least for me, concerned a work called Tell Me a Tale choreographed by Gray Veredon in 1988 in which Jonty played the role of the Teller of Tales. In an interview I did with Jonty in 2018 he told me he was ‘a really “outback” character’ in the work. In a earlier interview (2012) with Royal New Zealand Ballet’s former wardrobe manager, Andrew Pfeiffer, I heard that ‘Jon was dressed in a Driza-Bone with a bit of silver fern wrapped through his hat and that emblem printed all over the top of his Driza-Bone.’ Below is Kristian Fredrikson’s design for the Teller of Tales alongside a photo of Jonty dressed in that outfit.

Andrew Pfeiffer also gave a very succinct outline of the story saying, ‘It was basically a storyteller telling a young boy the story of New Zealand in terms of the relationships between the Māori people and the colonists. Jonty was often just standing there with a young boy sitting at his feet. He was miming to the boy throughout the ballet with the ballet taking place on the side.’

And another aspect of that part of my talk was Veredon’s discussion of how the work came to be called Tell Me a Tale. Here is the audio link:

I was really disappointed not to have been able to give the talk and may work out later how to add the PPT to this site.

  • Hannah O’Neill

It is always good to hear about Hannah O’Neill’s ongoing success with Paris Opera Ballet. Here is a link to the latest news.

  • Lifeline Book Fair Canberra

The Lifeline Book Fair is a regular event in Canberra and has been for many years now. The most recent fair was in February 2024 and I ended up with seven dance-related items even though I had decided I have enough dance books for the rest of my life and wasn’t intending to buy anything this time. All in all the seven items cost me $27, which will go to helping Lifeline Canberra keep its crisis telephone service operating in the local area. I am currently reading the autobiographical I, Maya Plistetskaya, perhaps the most unusually written book I have ever come across. Next on the list is The Official Bolshoi Ballet Book of Swan Lake by Yuri Grigorovich and Alexander Demidov, whose chapters include ‘The Inside Story’, ‘Concerning One Delusion’, ‘A Painful Dilemma’ and other such fascinating titles. It promises to hold many matters that will be new to me I think.

Michelle Potter, 29 February 2024

Featured image: Jon Trimmer as Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1999. Photo: © Maarten Holl

Joan Acocella (1945–2024)

Tributes from Michelle Potter and Jennifer Shennan

From Michelle:
It is with immense sadness that I pass on the news that esteemed dance writer, Joan Acocella, has died in New York City aged 78. She was one of the best dance writers I have come across. Why? Her writing style was always eloquent, elegant and engaging. Her research for her writing seemed to know no bounds. And her way of thinking about dance was profoundly different from most dance writers.

In the introduction to her book, Twenty-eight artists and two saints, a collection of essays written initially for other printed sources (largely but not exclusively for The New Yorker), she explains her point of view in relation to the essays included in the book. Her approach addresses what she calls ‘the pain that came with the art-making, interfering with it, and how the artist dealt with this’ rather than what she sees as a common belief that artists endure ‘a miserable childhood and then, in their adult work, to weave that straw into gold’.1

Her 1993 publication Mark Morris also has a beautiful slant on the idea of biography. In her Author’s Note that precedes the biography itself she writes:

My goal was to provide an account of [Morris’] life and a guide to his work, but what I wanted most was to give a portrait of his imagination—an idea of how he thinks, or how he thinks the thoughts that lead to his dances.2

Elsewhere on this site I have written about Mark Morris with the words:

Acocella knew Morris’ background, sexual, emotional, family and otherwise, but didn’t dwell on it as such. Instead she showed us so clearly how that background could give us an insight into his works. I especially enjoyed her chapter on Morris’ time in Brussels. True, she mentioned the dramas, but also the successes so that it became a balanced account of that time. She also set it within a context of European approaches to viewing dance and contrasted these approaches with those she thought were more typical of American thoughts. Her biography of Morris is so worth reading.

Then there is her fabulous editing of Nijinsky’s diaries in which she gives us the real thing, not an expurgated version as did Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.

But I have one personal memory that has always stayed, and always will stay with me. While working in New York I was giving a media introduction to a New York Public Library Dance Division exhibition INVENTION. Merce Cunningham and collaborators. I was about to use a quote from an article by Acocella on the Cunningham production Split Sides. As I looked up and out to the audience, there was Joan Acocella smiling beatifically as her name was mentioned and somehow seeming to stand out from the others in the auditorium. A shining moment and a special memory of an exceptional lover of dance.

From Jennifer:
In 2000 Wellington’s International Festival of the Arts proposed an Arts Writing initiative in which the British High Commission brought out Michael Billington, long-time theatre critic for The Guardian, and Fulbright New Zealand brought Joan Acocella, dance critic from New York.

 (At first the invitation had gone Deborah Jowitt but, as the deadline for her book on Antony Tudor was approaching, she declined. Jenny Gill of Fulbright asked me to suggest an alternative. I had met Joan Acocella in 1980s while studying in New York and many of us were delighted when she accepted the invitation).

I requested that Joan first be taken to Dunedin where RNZBallet were performing a season including halo by Douglas Wright, and Mark Morris’ Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, and her resulting review was full of interest. Then in Wellington Joan conducted a weekend dance-writing workshop—some dozen of us attended NDT’s Mozart program, wrote a review overnight, delivered those to Joan at her hotel before breakfast then met mid-morning to hear her comments on our various reviews. It was a fascinating experience and I stlll use my notes from that weekend.

I also arranged for Joan to give a lecture at NZSchool of Dance where she spoke about Nijinksy. (Joan’s edition of Nijinsky’s Diary reinstates all that his wife Romola had omitted from her early publication of it. Her biography of Mark Morris is also an insightful study of an iconoclastic artist).

In the years of Joan’s sparkling dance and literature writings for the NY Review of Books, and for The New Yorker, there are many classic pieces, but her trip with Baryshnikov on his first return to Riga is probably the most indelibly etched of them all.

A very great dance writer indeed. It was a privilege to have known and worked with her.

Joan Acocella: born San Francisco, 13 April 1945; died New York City, 7 January 2024

Michelle Potter and Jennifer Shennan, 11 January 2024

Featured Image: Joan Acocella photographed in New York. Photo from The New York Review of Books.


1. Twenty-eight artists and two saints (New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House) 2007), p. xiii. Not all the subjects in this book are dance artists but those who are include Lucia Joyce, Vaslav Nijinsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins, Suzanne Farrell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp.

2. Mark Morris (New York: Farrer Straus Giroux, 1993), unpaginated.

Various obituaries are available on the internet.

Farewell to a year of dance, 2023

by Jennifer Shennan

In Maori custom an address or oratory always opens with acknowledgment of those recently deceased, recognising ‘the mighty totara trees that have fallen.’ That puts Jon Trimmer right up there in the first line since he is/was unarguably the hero of New Zealand dance. Knighted for his unmatched artistry, and the longevity of his fabled performance career, Jon was loved by so many—for all the roles he danced but also for the plain common decency in the man. Fastidiously professional about his own work, he was always interested in the work of others, ever standing by to help should that be needed. Jon may have passed (26 October 2023, aged 84) but the memories of his mighty performance career will never be forgotten, never. Nor will we see his like again, ever. Jon carried the mantle from Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr to safeguard the Company for decades. That now passes to those performers and directors who lead RNZBallet. One can only wish them courage.  [The Company’s public tribute to Jon will be held in Wellington on Friday 2 February, 2024. See Company’s website for details and reservations. The next Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, on Sunday 25 February 2024, will be devoted to Jon. Presenters include Turid Revfeim, Anne Rowse, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Michelle Potter. For details and reservations, email jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz). Links to my obituaries for Jon are at this link and at www.stuff.co.nz

Jon Trimmer as Dr Coppélius in Coppélia. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1996. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

……………………


The Auckland Arts Festival began the year with two striking productions—Revisor, stunning dance-theatre choreographed by Crystal Pite, with dancers playing actors playing dancers. Scored in Silence was a deeply moving film-dance testament to the experiences of the profoundly deaf community of Hiroshima 1945.  

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s mid-year season Lightscapes, had four works with for me the standout Requiem for a Rose by Annabella Lopez-Orcha—a beautiful mysterious meditation, and the powerfully atmospheric Logos by Alice Topp (an RNZB alumna). Their single performance Platinum, was a tribute to 70 years achievement. My enduring memory is of Sara Garbowski dancing exquisitely in the excerpt from Giselle Act II. Sara has since retired from her 15 year performance career, and I for one am sorry we did not see her in the complete ballet. (Perhaps if she finds retirement over-rated she could come back as a guest artist to perform it in a year’s time?). The Company’s year ended with a romping return season of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel which the rejuvenated company performed with great gusto.

Sara Garbowski in Giselle, Act II. Platinum season, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Mary-Jane O’Reilly’s Ballet Noir, a contemporary treatment of Giselle Act II, was a phenomenal achievement—independent dancers who nevertheless performed as a seasoned company, with flawless technique, integrated design and powerful dramatic effect. We don’t do Dance Oscars, thank goodness, but if we did, this work would probably score. Another memorable season was the dance opera, (m)Orpheus, with direction and choreography by Neil Ieremia of Black Grace dance company. The dancers combined seamlessly with the singers who found nobility in a contemporary urban setting.

It was terrific to hear of Raewyn Hill’s staging Douglas Wright’s exquisite Gloria on her Co3 in Perth. Rumours of other works by Douglas in their planning for re-staging, mean I’d better be saving for an airfare. In Wellington an exhibition, Geist, of Tessa Ayling-Guhl’s photo portraits of Douglas Wright from 2015, was a moving experience. Björn Aslund choreographed a solo, geist dance, accompanied by Robert Oliver on bass viol, in the gallery. It’s always special when a dance enhances an art gallery space, uniting both art forms. A gathering was held at The Long Hall on October 14 to mark Douglas’ birthdate — and an archival screening of The Kiss Inside made compelling viewing. We plan to host a similar event every year on that date, and are grateful to Megan Adams who maintains the Douglas Wright archive with fastidious care.

A capacity audience attended the Russell Kerr lecture, this time focussing on Patricia Rianne’s celebrated career, and viewing her 1986 ballet, Bliss, based on the Katherine Mansfield short story. 2023 marks the centenary of Mansfield’s death and I was honoured to present a paper KM and Dance, at the VUW conference held to mark that.

2023 also marked the centenary of the tragic incident in which a young dancer, Phyllis Porter, was performing in the Opera House in Wellington, when her tarlatan skirt caught on the gaslight in the wings and she was horribly burnt, and died four days later. Shades of Emma Livry in Paris, though no-one here makes a pilgrimage to Phyllis’ resting place.

2023 offered several memorable dance videos—the Arts channel had a repeat screening of the splendid Cloudgate in Lin Hwai Min’s Rice. Firestarter about Bangarra Dance Theatre again made compelling viewing. A doco, The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Dancing told of Tom Oakley, a young Liverpool boy with serious cystic fibrosis yet who had danced his way to win a scholarship to Rambert Dance school. The outstanding force in German dance, Susanne Linke, sent me an intriguing video of her dance project, Inner Suspension, in which she shares her pedagogy and technique. (Anyone interested to receive the link could email Inge Zysk at info@susannelinke.com).

Several dance books of interest featured in my year. David McAllister was appointed Interim Artistic Director at RNZBallet. His two books, Ballet Confidential and the earlier Solo, provide access to the backstage life of the ballet and proved popular among local readers. The book Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty which Anne Rowse and I co-edited back in 2013, was released in a digital edition by Victoria University Press.

If I had to signal the hour and a half of the year that offered the purest dance pleasure, it would be the RNZB Company class I observed taught by David McAllister. Clarity of physics, and the miracle of anatomy, combined with music and poetry from each dancer, reveals the art, unmarked by choreography, casting, costumes and champagne—all the things we go to the ballet for. Here by contrast is the forge and the chapel where the art of the dancer is daily honed and made good. It’s my favourite thing.

Season’s greetings to all—in happy anticipation of 2024 which will see Akram Khan’s The Jungle Book Reimaginedand mid- year an intriguing project, Bismaya, in which Chamber Music New Zealand are bringing musicians from India to combine with Vivek Kinra’s Mudra dance company in a national tour and workshops. Russell Kerr’s pedigree production of Swan Lake from RNZB comes up in May, and later their mixed bill, Solace which includes a new work by Alice Topp. A return season of Liam Scarlett’s magical Midsummer Nights’ Dream is the work that keeps his talent alive.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2023

Featured image: Jon Trimmer as a Stepmother in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1987. Photo courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

Dance diary. October 2023

  • News from James Batchelor

James Batchelor continues to make a name for himself in Europe and November will see a national tour around Sweden by Norrdans (Northern Dance) of Batchelor’s latest work Event. Event will share the program with Everlasting—a new love by New York-based choreographer Jeanine Durning. Media for Event describes it as follows:

In Event by Australian choreographer James Batchelor, you encounter a sensuous world of looping patterns and oceanic ripples. Ornamented with a hint of the baroque, the dancers find joy in connection, synchronising and falling into rhythm with an original score from collaborator Morgan Hickinbotham.

Event premiered in late October. One reviewer (Yvonne Rittval) remarked, ‘The stage is covered by a painting with sinuous, swelling shapes in warm colors reminiscent of the Baroque. One gets the exciting feeling that the ten dancers, some wearing crinolines others in many layers of frills, have risen from the painting and are bringing it to life.’

Below is a brief teaser.

  • Diaghilev’s Empire

Browsing one day in Dymocks bookshop in Sydney I spotted a book called Diaghilev’s Empire. How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World. It was written by English opera critic and (in his own words) ‘incurable balletomane’ Rupert Christiansen and was published in late 2022. It had not previously come to my notice for whatever reason and my initial reaction was ‘not another book about Diaghilev’. But I bought it anyway and am in the process of reading it. So far it has turned out to be a fascinating read and more than interesting for the comments Christiansen has included from books written by those who danced, or otherwise engaged with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. But the one paragraph that continues to make me smile is a quote from American author and critic, Carl van Vechten, about the opening performance in Paris of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring. Van Vechten remarked (and according to Christiansen this quote comes from Romola Nijinsky’s book Nijinsky):

A young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was labouring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronised with the beat of the music.


And so I continue with my reading!

  • News from Houston Ballet

The most recent news from Houston Ballet is that Australian conductor Simon Thew has been appointed as the company’s musical director and chief conductor. Thew has had a distinguished career across many countries to date and has been the recipient of many awards including the Dame Joan Sutherland/Richard Bonynge Travel Scholarship and a Churchill Fellowship. Thew and Welch first came into contact in 2016 when Houston Ballet staged Welch’s Romeo and Juliet in Australia. On that occasion, Thew joined Houston Ballet’s Ermanno Florio as a guest conductor.

Portrait of Simon Thew. Photo: © Alana Campbell

In other news, Stanton Welch has been at the helm of Houston Ballet for some 20 years now but last year former principal with American Ballet Theatre and recent artistic director of Washington Ballet, Julie Kent, joined him as co-artistic director. An article on that joint directorship written by Nancy Wozny recently appeared in Pointe Magazine. Read it at this link.

Houston Ballet artistic directors Stanton Welch and Julie Kent. Photo: © Julie Soefer

  • And if you are a Halloween fan …

Enjoy!

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2023

Featured image: Publicity for Norrdans’ double bill Ever. Everlasting (from the Norrdans website)

David McAllister, 2019. Photo: Georges Antoni

Ballet Confidential and Soar. Books by David McAllister

Ballet Confidential
by David McAllister
[Thames & Hudson, 2023]

Soar
by David McAllister with Amanda Dunn
[Thames & Hudson, 2021—also available as an e-book]

Books reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

David McAllister has through this year, 2023, been Acting Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet—to oversee the process of appointing a permanent Artistic Director, and to stabilise the management situation after both the previous directors, Executive and Artistic, had departed suddenly from their positions at Company.   

It’s therefore been timely to be reading Ballet Confidential, to learn about McAllister’s own long-term career as a dancer, then his even longer term as Artistic Director, with the Australian Ballet. As well there is his earlier and more personal memoir, Soar, written with Amanda Dunn, both books published by Thames & Hudson. 

McAllister’s writing is eminently accessible, conversational in tone, addressing the reader directly. He keeps a friendly, light, honest and humorous touch throughout—giving the welcome impression that he takes his art, but not himself, seriously. There is sincere respect for the dancers whose dedication and discipline is the seminal part of any company’s achievements—as well as insights into the management and governance responsibilities involved in directing that river of talent.

McAllister is out to debunk the reputation of ballet as an elite theatre art that entices only its afficionados, and he offers numerous encouragements to those who think ballet is strictly for the birds, who don’t attend performances because they ‘can’t hear the words’ to instead give it a go.

New Zealand readers who have followed the fortunes of our own national company across its 70 years cannot help but compare the scale of company size and resources for dance between the two countries. The Australian Ballet has become a flagship company for its country with a number of high-profile and successful international tours to its credit. Our own company has not toured internationally for a number of years (not a Covid-related phenomenon) but anyone who pays attention to the fortunes and woes of ballet companies worldwide will nonetheless know ours as a stalwart and determined 7 decades-long endeavour that has served drama, joy, vivacity, solace, style and beauty to its home audiences.

Ballet Confidential is not intended as a scholarly history of ballet—but it certainly contains much of interest as McAllister traces some of the seminal figures who have featured in Australia’s dancing life. (In this regard I’d have valued an Index for the book—since Soar does include a very good one, and has photos of very high quality on dedicated paper).

The reader can also recognise telling comparisons with New Zealand in other areas—particularly in the acknowledgment of First Peoples’ prominence in historical, cultural and social identity. There is also the issue of the resources given to sport across its many codes, with all the touring of teams and spectators alike, and the wealth of domestic and international media coverage beyond compare. Ever positive in his thinking, McAllister nonetheless points out the striking progress across the past few years in elite sports training, injury prevention and management that are such a near and present issue for sportsfolk and dancers alike, and that the relevant medical practitioners have been able to share their approaches to the challenges common to both callings.

It is wonderful to be reminded of AB’s major seasons of commissioned full-length choreographies. Graeme Murphy is the shining star in the firmament there—with his extraordinary Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, and the celebrated Swan Lake. (Lucky those of us who crossed the Tasman to see the latter—and top marks to those who made the feature film of Clara, so we have been able to see that too. It’s available for viewing on Vimeo through AB website).  

David tells the story of being a young dancer in his first year at the Company, 1983, cast in Le Conservatoire, the Bournonville work staged by Poul Gnatt on Australian Ballet. (He had earlier staged it on the Australian Ballet School during the 1960s). David enjoys the symmetry and longevity of that association through being Interim AD of the company Gnatt founded here in 1953—’so Poul is still giving me the chance to do something worthwhile all these decades later’.

The announcement just last week of the new Artistic Director of RNZBallet, Ty King-Wall, a New Zealander with many years’ experience in Australian Ballet, is most welcome, and my heart skipped a beat of joy (is that what a cardiologist would say?) to read in King-Wall’s profile that he has danced lead roles in Bournonville choreographies over the years, so he understands the technique and style of our company’s original tradition.

There are other names to slip in here of the ballet links between our two countries and two companies—apart from van Praagh and Gnatt, and Borovanksy before them—that includes sharing Bryan Ashbridge, Jon Trimmer, Jacqui Trimmer, Harry Haythorne, Roy Wilson, Susan Elston, Fiona Tonkin, Graeme Murphy, Jane Casson, Martin James, Adrian Burnett, David McAllister, and now Ty King-Wall with his dancing wife, Amber Scott. These are ties that bind.

Jennifer Shennan, 17 September 2023

Featured image: David McAllister, 2019. Photo: Georges Antoni

David McAllister, 2019. Photo: Georges Antoni

Dance diary. August 2023

  • Recent (and future) reading

Jennifer Homans’ recent book Mr B. George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century is perhaps the most spectacularly researched and written dance book I have ever read. As the title suggests, its major subject is George Balanchine, who was known to his dancers as Mr B, and Homans certainly tells us a lot about Balanchine’s life, much more than the many other Balanchine-focused books I have read. Little is held back, which sets it apart from those reminiscences that see Balanchine as perfection embodied.

Homans has drawn on a huge range of material including personal letters to and from Balanchine, diaries of dancers who worked with him, interviews with a huge range of those who knew him, and many other examples of primary and secondary source material. His relationships with his dancers and those around him, including his sexual activities, are not ignored. Nor is it only a new understanding of Balanchine that emerges in Homans’ ‘no holds barred’ examination, but we discover in depth the nature of so many of his early dancers, not to mention Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, and so many others who were part of the scene. But what was also brilliant throughout was Homan’s discussion of how Balanchine worked with composers and used music as an essential component of his choreography. Most books I have read comment on Balanchine’s musicality but Mr B is for me the first to look in depth, and analytically, at this aspect of his work.

But basically I guess what I loved most was how Homans was able to set Balanchine’s life in a wide social and cultural context. This is what made the book outstanding and I hope to do a more detailed review of this book shortly.

Two books are on my reading list for the immediate future: David McAllister’s Ballet Confidential, shortly to be reviewed on this site by Jennifer Shennan, and a new book from Eileen Kramer, Life keeps me dancing. Inspired by Kramer’s new book, an interesting article appeared in The Guardian. Here is the link.

  • Jennifer Irwin

I have long been a fan of the design work of Jennifer Irwin and this site features many mentions of her costume work, especially for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet. I have admired her use of materials, the cut of the costumes she makes, the way they move with the dance, the way in some cases a single item on a costume can represent a range of ideas, and much more. So it was a thrill to read that she has just been awarded the Cameron’s Management Outstanding Contribution to Design Award by the Australian Production Design Guild.

Read more on this site about Irwin’s work for various dance companies at this tag, and on Bangarra’s Knowledge Ground. I also interviewed Irwin in 2011 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program and that interview is available online at this link.

  • Oral history: Daniel Riley

At the end of August I had the huge pleasure of interviewing Daniel Riley in Adelaide for the National Library of Australia’ oral history program. Riley, recently appointed artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, is the company’s sixth director since its foundation by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman in 1965. He is also the initial First Nations artist to take on the role. The interview has not yet been catalogued but it was a rewarding occasion for me and the interview covers an exceptional range of material. It is certainly an important addition to the National Library’s collection of dance interviews.

Before heading back to Canberra I made a quick visit to the Art Gallery of South Australia and the featured image for this month’s dance diary comes from that Gallery’s extensive and beautifully presented collection of art works from a range of First Nations’ artists.

  • Amber Scott to retire

The Australian Ballet has announced that principal artist Amber Scott will retire at the end of September. Scott joined the Australian Ballet in 2001 and was promoted to principal in 2011. Her diverse career to date has included leading roles in Swan Lake (Stephen Baynes, Graeme Murphy), The Sleeping Beauty (David McAllister), Giselle (Maina Gielgud), La Bayadère (Stanton Welch), The Nutcracker (Peter Wright), Manon (Kenneth MacMillan), Onegin (John Cranko), and The Merry Widow (Ronald Hynd). She will give her final performance at the end of September in the company’s new production of Swan Lake.

For more about Amber Scott see this tag.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2023

Featured image: Detail from (Stitched bark canoe: laden with painted snail shells), 1994 by Johnny Bulunbulun. Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo: © Neville Potter


Dance diary. June 2023

This month’s dance diary has, unexpectedly, a focus on dance books. One book is quite new and is due to be released on 1 August. The others have already been published and their mention is a result of other, related news received during the month.

  • The Art and Science of Ballet Dancing and Teaching. A new book by Janet Karin

A new book by Janet Karin OAM, The Art and Science of Ballet Dancing and Teaching, will be released by Routledge on 1 August 2023. Karin has had an extraordinarily diverse dance career including as a performer, teacher and researcher. Her book has the subtitle ‘Integrating Mind, Brain and Body’ and examines an approach to ballet that is holistic in outlook rather than being seen and understood as a collection of steps joined together.

In her introduction, Karin has shared her thoughts about writing the book:

I have written this book for all those who, like me, have wondered what is ‘inside’ the visible reality of the dancing body. How does the miracle of beautiful, expressive dancing happen? This question has mesmerised me from my earliest ballet classes. Now, after many decades as a dancer, teacher and dance science researcher, I offer my understanding of the mystery within dance to all those who share my wonder. The book is written primarily for dancers, company ballet staff, ballet teachers, and vocational and under-graduate dance students but I hope it may be of interest to parents, audience members, health practitioners and anyone else who wishes to know more about the inner workings of the dancer’s mind and body.

(left) front cover for The Art and Science of Ballet Dancing and Teaching; (right) the author, Janet Karin. Photo: © David Cartier, David Cartier Photography

The image that graces the front cover shows Robyn Hendricks and Robert Curran from the Australia Ballet in a moment from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. The photo was taken by Jess Bialek.

Here is the link to information about the book and how to purchase it from the publisher.

  • Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake

Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake, made for Houston Ballet and first seen in 2006 has just recently been restaged. I found the production, which I have only seen on DVD, quite absorbing from many points of view. It was of course especially notable for me as it was designed by Kristian Fredrikson. Fredrikson was the subject of my book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, published by Melbourne Books in 2020. He created the designs for Swan Lake in 2005, the year of his death. It was his last commission.

Houston Ballet is still using those original designs after 17 or so years and the Texan lifestyle magazine Papercity included a review of the recent restaging in its edition of 13 June 2023. The review included the following:

Swan Lake’s Costume Power

Adding to the dark atmosphere are costumes and sets by Kristian Fredrikson, who borrows from the mood and palette of pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse. The ballet’s opening scene at the lake is inspired by Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shalott, 1888, based on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1832 poem of the same name. Set in Arthurian times, the poem depicts the mythological tale of a female figure who, like Odette, gives her life for love and a moment of freedom, and thereby breaks a curse.

That the Pre-Raphaelites were also inspired by the Ottoman Empire likely explains Fredrikson’s Byzantinesque ballroom in Act II, ominously lit by designer Lisa J. Pinkham, where the Queen is entertaining. The impressive set has been widely praised since its inception.

I have fond memories of travelling to Houston during research for my book. Especially generous to me on that occasion was wardrobe manager Laura Lynch and, as a result of Lynch’s input, and that of others in Houston, I was able to include a reasonably extensive account of the design work for Welch’s Swan Lake. My book features a number of illustrations of aspects of the production, including one showing the set and costumes for the ballroom scene mentioned above. The genesis of the tutus for the swans is also discussed.

My book is still available from Melbourne Books and is currently being offered at a special price. Follow this link.

  • Philippa Cullen. Some little known footage

Evelyn Juers, author The Dancer. A Biography for Philippa Cullen, alerted me to some footage of Cullen, which she described as ‘rare’ noting that she had never seen it before. It was shot in 1975 by Stephen Raoul Jones when Cullen appeared in ‘Australia 75: Computers and Electronics in the Arts’ in the ballroom of the Lakeside Hotel in Canberra in March 1975.

More information about the footage and Jones’ recording of it is available in the text attached to the video link below.

My review of Juers’ book is at this link. Copies are available from the publisher, Giramondo, at this link.

  • Derek Denton (1924–2022)

Somewhat belatedly I discovered that Emeritus Professor Derek ‘Dick’ Denton AC had died, aged 98, in Melbourne late last year. Quite rightly the obituaries I have since read focus on Denton’s extraordinary career as a research physiologist. But Denton married Margaret Scott, later Dame Margaret Scott, in Cambridge, England, in 1953, and his support of Scott throughout her diverse dance career is exceptional. In particular, he was active in the many discussions with H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs and others, which took place in the Denton/Scott home in Melbourne and which eventually led to the establishment of the Australian Ballet and later the Australian Ballet School of which Scott was founding director.

I had much admiration for Denton, in particular for his knowledge and generosity as I set to work on my biography of Scott, Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance, which was published in 2014 by Text Publishing. The book includes many references to Denton’s role in the growth of ballet in Australia. Some are highly surprising, such as his involvement in an operation undergone by Scott in 1951. The book is still available from the publisher. Follow this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2023

Featured image: Cover for Janet Karin’s book The Art and Science of Ballet Dancing and Teaching

Dance diary. December 2022

At the end of December it is always interesting to look back on statistics for the year. During 2022, Jennifer Shennan and I have posted 58 items on the website (just over one per week) and we have received around 46,000 visits over that period. Melbourne tops the list of cities from which our readers have come, but the website attracts visitors from around the world, especially (apart from Australia and New Zealand) from the United States and the United Kingdom. May our statistics continue to improve over the year to come and I wish all our friends and colleagues a happy new year. May 2023 be filled with dance, in whatever form that may currently be for you.


In the meantime, below are some news items that emerged during December 2022.

  • Joseph Romancewicz

In a recent ‘Behind Ballet’ post, the Australian Ballet has explained why I have not seen Joseph Romancewicz onstage for some time. I have admired his dancing, and his strong stage presence, since 2018 when I thoroughly enjoyed his performance in a small role in a production of The Merry Widow, but had been a little disappointed that I hadn’t seen him recently. Well an injury in 2021 has kept him out of performances but it seems, with the help of the Australian Ballet’s health team and some surgery, he has recovered. He was an excellent Tybalt in the recent production of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet and I look forward to seeing him again in 2023.

Joseph Romancewicz (right) as Tybalt with Jarryd Madden in Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

  • Melanie Lane

Melanie Lane, whose recent work in Canberra was Metal Park for QL2 Dance’s annual Quantum Leap show, has been named Choreographer in Residence 2023-2024 by Melbourne’s Chunky Move. The Choreographer in Residence initiative will invest $120,000 in Lane’s practice over the two years including a direct contribution of $50,000 in artist fees and $70,000 towards the commission of a major work in the second year of the tenure.

Melanie Lane rehearsing Quantum Leap dancers for Metal Park, 2022. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Lane has previously been commissioned by Sydney Dance Company, where she showed her unforgettable work WOOF, and by Australasian Dance Collective, Dance North, Chunky Move, Schauspiel Leipzig and West Australian Ballet. She was the recipient of the 2018 Keir choreographic award and the 2017 Leipziger Bewegungskunstpreis in Germany.

I interviewed Lane earlier this year while she was preparing Metal Park. See this link for what I wrote as a result of the interview. I am very much looking forward too to seeing what eventuates from Lane’s work with Chunky Move.

  • La Nijinska. A new book by Lynn Garafola

How little I knew about Bronislava Nijinska before reading Lynn Garafola’s latest, intensively researched book La Nijinska. It is a very dense book but, from the countless research elements, stories and anecdotes, one or two stand out for me, largely for personal reasons. I was interested to read about the genesis of Les Noces for example: it has a whole chapter to itself. It reminded me of a performance in Canberra way back in 1982 when Don Asker, then directing the city’s resident dance company, Human Veins Dance Theatre, choreographed a version of Les Noces for a Stravinsky Festival. Asker collaborated with the Canberra School of Music and, perhaps ‘for the first time ever’, so the media reported, had the music performed as Stravinsky envisaged it. The orchestra, including four grand pianos, soloists and chorus, shared the stage with the dancers. It was a monumental undertaking and one not to be forgotten.

Perhaps the most interesting snippet for me, however, was a brief discussion of Nijinska as a potential director of a second Ballets Russes company for Colonel de Basil, one that would eventually head to Australia. The story goes:

Now, in the summer of 1936, rumours circulated about the likelihood of de Basil forming a second company that would tour Australia, while the main company danced in Germany and the United States. Thomas Armour … wrote to a friend on April 22, “I have been told de Basil really plans this year to have two companies and that Nijinska will be in charge of the second.” (Lynn Garafola, La Nijinska. New York, Oxford University Press, 2022, p. 359).

Well it didn’t happen that Nijinska came to Australia in that role. It was Leon Woizikowsky who headed that 1936 visit to Australia. One must wonder however how different ballet in Australia might have been had it happened!

  • The Dying Swan

As we begin a new year, enjoy a beautiful performance of The Dying Swan danced by Nina Ananiashvili. It comes from the Jacob’s Pillow playlist, an amazing source of dance on film from works performed over the years at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts. Watch Ananiashvili here.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2022

Featured image: A private lesson. Photo: © Tim Potter