‘Australia Dances.’ Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon

Some who log on to this site have asked about Alan Brissenden’s and Keith Glennon’s recently published book Australia Dances: creating Australian dance 1945–1965. With the kind permission of The Canberra Times, who published my overview of the book on 2 August 2010, I am posting a PDF of that review. While I was extremely fortunate to have been allocated a whole page for my comments there is always much more to say than is possible in a  review. I would be more than happy to publish any comments on Australia Dances from readers of this site.

‘Australia Dances’ review

Michelle Potter, 1 October 2010



‘Diaghilev. A life.’ Sjeng Scheijen

In 1951 Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, later to become Jacqueline Kennedy, won Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris for a short essay entitled ‘People I wish I had known’.  She wrote about three men, one of whom was Serge Diaghilev. She described him as an ‘alchemist unique in art history’.  Kennedy is not alone in naming Diaghilev as a man of singular importance in the development of the arts in the West. The Australian-born writer and cultural critic Clive James included Diaghilev in his recent collection of essays, Cultural Amnesia, for example. And one of Diaghilev’s biographers tells the story of the vegetable seller at Covent Garden who said to him: ‘Did you know Daggyleff? He was the greatest dancer that ever lived’.

Neither Jacqueline Kennedy, nor Clive James, nor the unnamed vegetable seller knew Serge Diaghilev personally and yet for each the name Diaghilev resonated in a particularly powerful manner. It is now 81 years since Serge Diaghilev died in 1929, so what was it about this man and his exploits that continues to have an impact across continents, professions and social strata?

The obvious answer is that Diaghilev changed the face of dance by establishing an aesthetic of collaboration such as the dance world had not previously known, and in so doing surrounded himself with the most innovative thinkers and artists across all fields of endeavour. The year 2009 saw the centenary of the first Paris season of his famed Ballet Russe company and the world has been flooded with exhibitions and publications celebrating that event and its ongoing influence. More are planned for 2010.

But in addition, Diaghilev had personality plus! And it is this aspect of his life that comes out very clearly in Sjeng Scheijen’s biography Diaghilev: a life published in 2009. It is in fact a beguiling book. It places the whole Diaghilev enterprise in a very personal context—the troubles, the strife, the arguments, the sex, the weeping, the dramas, the networking, they’re all there. I probably didn’t learn all that much more about the works in the Diaghilev repertoire and this might be seen as a limitation of sorts. But I did learn much about the social and personal environment in which that repertoire got to the stage and Diaghilev’s personality grew bigger and bigger and more and more complex as the book continued.

My favourite anecdote, however, is a somewhat surreal one. It concerns the persuasive Misia Sert, pianist, patron and one time wife of painter Jose Maria Sert, and her input into Red Cross efforts during World War I. It is surreal in its juxtaposition of art and reality. It reads:

‘Many celebrated artists entered military service, though few fought at the front. Most joined army nursing corps or signed up with the Red Cross. Misia managed to persuade her couturier friends to provide a number of vans, which she converted into ambulances. Manned by artists and socialites, they sped to the aid of troops in northern France. Her nursing staff included Cocteau, sporting a natty little uniform designed by the couturier Poiret. Maurice Ravel also drove an ambulance, though in a regular army unit. Ida Rubinstein, too, worked as a nurse, though her uniform was designed by Bakst.’

The main strength of the book is the depth of research that has gone into its creation. It draws on sources, many of them valuable primary resources from Russia, which have not been and are still not easily available to other researchers. These sources make this biography quite unique. However, the use of personal material is not without its problems and in my opinion any publication that relies heavily on very personal material such as letters, diaries and the like needs to be taken with a grain of salt and its sources considered and reconsidered, checked and rechecked against other material. Scheijen relies heavily on such material and little else, which makes me wonder whether or not the book will in the future be seen as a collection of gossip and anecdote.  Nevertheless, the book is a great read.

One little annoyance: I disliked finding reference to Le Boutique fantasque. The name of the work is beautifully written with the adjective beginning with a lower case ‘f’ as is absolutely correct from a French language point of view. But as far as I know ’boutique’ has always been feminine gender — ‘la boutique’.

I also puzzled for a while over how Diaghilev could have seen the Olympic Games in Athens during a trip to Europe in 1906, as Scheijen observes, when I had always believed that Athens hosted the Olympics in 1896 and that 1906 was not an Olympic year. But the puzzlement was my ignorance. Eventually I discovered that Athens hosted an ‘Intercalated Games’ in 1906. The argument about whether or not the 1906 Games were really ‘Olympic’ has been an interesting side-step for me.

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2010

‘Fjord Review.’ First issue

It is always good to see new dance writing. There are too few outlets for the kind of dance writing that arouses interest and generates debate. That’s why it was a pleasure to see Fjord Review, a new magazine, beautifully designed, make its appearance out of Melbourne at the end of 2009. Shrouded in mystery too! All the articles appear to be written by the one author, who is also the editor/business owner of the publication, it seems. Or at least that’s what one surmises. The initials ‘FR’ appear at the bottom of most articles. No hint of price or frequency though, just a note on the back cover:

Submissions and subscription requests can be made by writing to fjordreview@gmail.com

In terms of content, Fjord Review covers a good, wide field—ballet, contemporary, film, historical writing, works of art on paper, poetry and exhibitions. I disagree with many of the opinions expressed I have to say. The editorial, for example, is called ‘Ballet: a eulogy’. It expresses the opinion that ballet has been in decline for some time and its decline has been exacerbated by the economic downturn. Ballet does have its ups and downs but to my mind they are more to do with the quality of artistic direction and leadership than anything else and a good leader can emerge at any time and in any circumstances. Decline does not necessarily follow an evolutionary pathway either.

I found the reference to how unfortunate it was that Canberra was the sole Australian host of the Degas exhibition gratuitous and unnecessary and simply an example of ‘Canberra bashing’ in which so many Australians love to engage. But I admired the descriptions of what many thought was the highlight of the show, Degas’ Little dancer of fourteen years. FR writes: ‘She waits for something bright and her forehead, nose and collarbones are lustrous’. Similarly engaging writing surfaced in ‘(Re)Construct: one night in Frankston’, a review of Tanja Liedtke’s work Construct.

I also loved the short piece about Gillian Lacey’s film ‘Play: on the beach with the Ballets Russes’ and look forward to seeing it at some stage. But being more than familiar with the footage that forms the basis of Lacey’s work, I thought it was a shame that the name of the amateur cinematographer who shot the raw footage, and to whom we owe so much, was spelt incorrectly. It was a slight error, and not an uncommon one, but enough to grate.

Which leads on to the editing of Fjord Review. If this magazine wants to be taken seriously, its editor needs to engage a second eye to do a critical copy edit of future issues. There are just too many errors, inconsistencies, awkward use of words and structures and some meaningless sentences in this first issue. I hope the editor wil also apply for an ISSN number, freely available from the National Library in Canberra http://www.nla.gov.au/services/issn.html, so the magazine will be able to be properly catalogued.

But I thank Fjord Review for sending me a copy and I look forward to watching its future growth.

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2010

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 10 December 2009

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


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


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

Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre. Kathrine Sorley Walker

Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre: Kathrine Sorley Walker (Alton: Dance Books, 2009). Available in Australia from Footprint Books or any good bookseller.

Robert Helpmann is a popular subject for biographical and other writing. Apart from the fact that he was clearly a showman both on and off stage making his exploits a source of fascination, he also was quite meticulous about documenting his career. He kept scrapbooks of his early stage and film appearances and, as he became more influential in the theatrical world, gave countless interviews and appeared in many documentaries. There is much material on which to base books, articles and feature pieces. The bibliography and notes to Anna Bemrose’s biography of Helpmann, published in 2008, give some insight into the amount of material that has already been written about Helpmann. Yet writers continue to be drawn to him and his exploits and undoubtedly this situation will persist. Kathrine Sorley Walker’s Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre is the latest in this line-up of published works.

The strength of Kathrine Sorley Walker’s book is that she was in the theatre for some of Helpmann’s most significant early productions and performances. Her best writing in this book lies, therefore, in her descriptions of Helpmann’s interpretation of roles whose performances she witnessed, especially when she describes the physical aspects of those interpretations. So, for example, she writes:

‘His Don Quixote, in fact, was an interpretation of dignity and power, a very noble portrait. Speaking for myself, I was awed by his controlled action, his vivid quality of stillness. As in Rake [The Rake’s Progress] and Miracle [Miracle in the Gorbals], he brought into play his ability to convey, without any sense of strain, a tremendous emotional effect. This was done by turns of the head, half-movements, the crook of a hand, a light in the eyes, a slight tremor in the muscles of the face. In contrast, a few swift moments of dancing, a wild beating at the bars of an imaginary cage, were immensely telling’.

This is wonderful observational writing.

Similarly, Sorley Walker reminds us of the qualities of Helpmann’s partnership with Margot Fonteyn. She writes:

‘The magnificent poetry and true Romantic understanding of the Fonteyn-Helpmann partnership in Giselle has been forgotten in the wake of the eulogies about the Fonteyn-Nureyev partnership. In Act II, the dream-like fluency of the dancing, the supernatural inevitability with which they allowed the drama to unfold were so absorbing that no one would have thought of disturbing the mood by applause until the final curtain. There were neither showpiece moments nor any sense of endeavour, merely an eloquent demonstration of skilfully unified music, dance and mime’.

Sorley Walker has also made use of material in her personal collection, as well as material in collections in the United Kingdom not usually quoted or referred to in other writing. So her extracts from an unpublished article by British dance critic A.V. Coton on Helpmann’s theatrical qualities and on his value to the Australian Ballet make interesting reading. So do her comments on an unrealised film production of The Sleeping Beauty largely based on treatment details housed, Sorley Walker records, in the Theatre Museum in London.

But the book also has its frustrating elements. Some relate to the way the book has been edited. It is not an enticing book to pick up randomly for a browse prior to a possible purchase. There are 27 chapters and three appendices but none has a distinguishing heading to it. Thus there is no way of knowing by looking at the list of chapters at the beginning of the book what is contained in the text. Would it appeal to someone without a particular interest in Helpmann? Maybe not.

Other frustrations relate to the way Sorley Walker has written her reminiscence of Helpmann. The book becomes at times an account of what happened next, which sometimes has the effect of encouraging the reader to skip past some sections looking for more of the informed analysis that is the most satisfying feature of the book. More than occasionally there is also a surfeit of quotations from others. In the space of just over a page of writing on The Merry Widow, for example, there are relatively lengthy quotations from four Australian critics – John Cargher, Jill Sykes (two), Leonard Radic and Neil Jillett (two). I would rather know in more depth what Kathrine Sorley Walker as the author of the book thought, or at least as well as what Cargher, Sykes, Radic and Jillett thought.

Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre deals not just with Helpmann’s dance career, which has provided all my examples in this review. In a slim volume of 162 pages of text it also covers his work as an actor on stage and in film and deals with his personal life as well. On this latter point Sorley Walker’s writing includes references to Helpmann’s long-terms relationship with his partner Michael Benthall, to his work and friendship with Katharine Hepburn and to his relations with his Australian family.

Dance books rarely make much money for their authors or publishers, although Mao’s last dancer may be a recent exception. The advocacy of Dance Books in persisting in publishing in a difficult field is more than admirable. And the gems that Sorley Walker presents at various intervals throughout Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre, gems coming from an informed standpoint as a result of having ‘been there’, make the book a worthwhile addition to the personal libraries of those interested in the arts.

Michelle Potter, 25 October 2009

Featured image: Book cover (detail). Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre.

Helpmann book cover

Note: A review of ‘Mim’: a personal memoir of Marie Rambert, also published recently by Dance Books, will appear on this website shortly.

‘A Feast of Wonders’

A Feast of Wonders: Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

Edited by John E. Bowlt, Zelfira Tregulova and Nathalie Rosticher Giordano (Milan: Skira, 2009)

In this very handsome volume published in conjunction with the exhibition Étonne-moi: Serge Diaghilev et les Ballets Russes, which opened in Monaco on 9 July 2009, Alexander Schouvaloff has an essay entitled ‘The Diaghilev Legend’. In it he remarks on the ‘continued fascination’ with the Ballets Russes. He writes: ‘It is puzzling. Artifacts and records remain to obsess scholars’. Well, the contents of this book make his use of the word ‘puzzling’ a puzzling one indeed.

The publication contains, in addition to the Schouvaloff piece, eleven other essays most of which develop their topics in contexts that have not previously been widely examined in the existing English writing on the Ballets Russes. For example, Nicoletta Misler’s ‘Dance, Memory! Tracing Ethnography in Nicholas Roerich’ draws on a wide range of Russian sources to examine Roerich’s use of shamanistic and similar imagery, particularly in his designs for Le Sacre du printemps. Then, Evgenia Iliukhina traces the roles of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova in the Diaghilev enterprise. She notes Goncharova’s sources and the influence of other artists on designs for her major pieces, including those works, such as Liturgie, which were not realised but which nevertheless were significant developments. Iliukhina also looks at Larionov’s interest in choreography and the evolution of his attitude to the role of design in ballet. The article rightly positions Goncharova and Larionov as major artists in the post 1914 period of the Ballets Russes and as more than simply successors to Bakst and Benois.

These articles, and others of equal interest, suggest that the ‘continued fascination’ will last for decades yet, especially when there is still much primary source material awaiting the attention of scholars. Despite the fact that 2009 celebrates the centenary of Diaghilev’s first Ballets Russes season in Paris, it is clear that there is still much to be discovered and written about. And to return to Schouvaloff, if one follows his instructions regarding the ‘Find a grave’ website, which he gives at the end of his piece, it is clear too that Diaghilev’s charisma has not waned.

In addition to the essays, the book contains a list of operas and ballets for which Diaghilev was responsible. The list begins in 1908 with Boris Godounov and ends in 1929 with Le Bal. Its strength, or its particular interest, is the way in which the list is illustrated – not with a single image but usually with several from a variety of sources and of different media. So we have Le Coq d’or illustrated with set designs, set models, costumes, costume designs and photographs. The illustrations for Le Spectre de la rose include swatches of fabric, paintings, posters, costume designs, designs for stage props, photographs and sketches. The list is made all the richer as a result of this diverse illustrative material. In fact illustrations throughout the book are themselves a feast of wonders and go well beyond those that have become so familiar in the current literature.

The introductory pages contain a long list of lenders to the exhibition, which will move to Moscow in October 2009. The list of lenders, private as well as institutional, is interesting in its scope as well as for the one or two major collections that are not represented.

A Feast of Wonders is a beautifully and meticulously produced book and a delight both visually and intellectually – much more than an accompanying catalogue.

Michelle Potter, 26 July 2009