Meryl Tankard: an original voice. Part eight—The voice

On 30 November 2012 the content of this post was deleted.

The background to the book is, however, worth retaining:

In 2004 I began working on the manuscript of a book, Meryl Tankard: an original voice. In that year a book about Tankard was commissioned by the National Library of Australia as part of a series called Australian Lives. The commissioning letter said, in part, that the book should:

… present a life of Meryl Tankard along with an account of her career and achievements … provide insights into her way of working, her acknowledged successes, her less well-known career highlights and her private life … [cover] key personal and professional associations … explore why she has, from time to time, been embroiled in some difficulties and controversies.

For a variety of reasons the Library decided not to proceed with publication of the manuscript as a title in the Australian Lives series. A proposal was considered again in 2008 after I had added to and significantly enhanced the manuscript once I no longer needed to adhere to a limit of 25,000–30,000 words. Again the Library decided not to proceed, with the final decision being made on the grounds that the publication would not attract enough public interest for sales to cover costs. Eventually, in 2011, I found a publisher who thought publication was a viable proposition, but other circumstances relating to copyright and permissions, which I was unable to secure, meant that once again publication did not proceed.

However, a huge amount of research went into the manuscript. Some of it was conducted overseas and some of it foregrounded works by Tankard that have not been seen in Australia or that were one-off shows. Extensive research also went into putting together a list Tankard’s choreographic works from 1977 to 2009. In addition, many, many people generously shared thoughts and material with me. It seemed a cruel fate for this research not to see the light of day. So, I published the major part of it on this website. I am delighted that the book is now available in expanded form as a self-published print production—unfortunately though without images! The print edition includes the eight chapters originally posted on this website plus a preface, introduction, bibliography, index and an updated list of choreographic works. Ordering details are at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2012

On stage alone. Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (eds)

I clearly remember the first live performance I saw when the concept of ‘solo dancer’ made a strong impact on me. In the 1980s some time Susanne Linke made a tour of Australia. I remember two works in particular: one, whose name I don’t recall, involved Linke moving slowly and agonisingly across the stage following a strip of bright, white light on the floor. The other was the well-known Im Bade wannen in which Linke danced with, in and around a bath tub. The show was a revelation.

On stage alone, cover

A recent book, On stage alone: soloists and the modern dance canon, recalled my Linke experience and reminded me of the many other solo dancers whose work I have encountered since. After reading the book I was also reminded of the many solo performers whose work I haven’t yet encountered!On stage alone: soloists and the modern dance canon is a collection of essays in which the solo dancer, male and female, is considered for the role he or she may play in shaping culture. Even though there are many acclaimed solo performers who do not appear in the book, to its credit On stage alone is broad in its scope. As Claudia Gitelman notes in her introduction, the book ‘presents an international roster of male and female soloists who worked from the late nineteenth century into the twenty first, and who offer arguments about what it means to be modern’.

We encounter some of the better-known, older exponents of the form. Julie Malnig gives an account of Maud Allan’s exploits, for example, and concludes that ‘In an age of clashing, if not confused, visions of women, Allan’s solo performances marked her as an icon of a newly expressive mode of female sexuality’. And with his usual strong theoretical insight, Ramsay Burt expounds on Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman and considers the challenging and uncomfortable nature of solo performances given by these two dancers in 1919. ‘Their solos enacted a modernist critique of dominant ideologies of freedom and individuality and, by so doing, stressed a fracture in the symbolic order’, he writes.

But there are also a number of chapters on more recent dancers whose main form of expression is the solo: a chapter on Daniel Nagrin by Deborah Jowitt, for example. Jowitt’s writing has an immediacy that is missing from some of the other essays. She has such a practised eye when it comes to analysing performance and she enables the reader to visualise Nagrin’s dancerly qualities:  ‘…his lightest steps were precise in the way they struck the floor, brushed it, or skittered over it. He managed his strength like a tiger, able to move from stillness into an explosion of energy’. Jowitt also strategically places Nagrin within the wider context of modern dance in America, especially within the context of society’s attitudes to the male dancer.

I enjoyed Janice Ross’ essay on Ann Carlson, whose dances with animals I have never seen. Ross made me hanker to do so. Carlson’s performances with a cow or a kitten or a goldfish in a bowl, generate a range of gender and identity issues and contain a wealth of ‘hidden narratives’. Ross examines four works in detail and concludes that Carlson’s solos with animals ‘are tender but compelling reminders of how the act of performing fractures but also reunites us, affording the solitary dancer the possibility of never really dancing alone’.

Other solo performers whose work is highlighted in On stage alone include the Japanese-American Michio Ito, the Brazilian Eros Volúsia and a number of solo artists working in Central Europe in the early part of the twentieth century, including Mata Hari, Olga Desmond and Niddy Impekoven.

The authors address a range of theoretical issues, to which Gitelman alludes briefly in her introduction: gender identity, the notion of the modern body, national and racial differences and others and the book groups essays according to the overarching theoretical and research approach of each. But what I missed in the book was a chapter on the art of solo performance itself, if such an analysis is possible in one chapter. Gitelman’s introduction sums up the content of the book, but it is not an analysis of the form. Nevertheless, On stage alone is a welcome addition to dance literature and opens up the field for further investigation.

Michelle Potter, 3 August 2012

Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (eds), On stage alone: soloists and the modern dance canon (Gainseville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012)
Hardback, 213 pp. ISBN 978-0-8130-4025-7

RRP: USD 39.95. Available through many online sites.

Here today, gone tomorrow. Christina Gallea Roy

My copy of Christina Gallea Roy’s book Here today, gone tomorrow has an inscription on the fly leaf that reads in part ‘Here is the rest of the story!’ I first had contact with Gallea when she donated to the National Library in Canberra a collection of material relating to her early career as a dancer with Walter Gore’s and Paul Hinton’s company, Australian Theatre Ballet. And there is indeed a whole lot more to the story.

Christina Gallea and Alexander Roy came from very different dance backgrounds. She was Sydney girl and studied at the Frances Scully School of Dancing; her first professional engagement was as a dancer with the Gore/Hinton Australian Theatre Ballet in 1955. He came from Magdeburg and danced with the ballet company at the Komische Oper in East Berlin. They met as members of American Festival Ballet, with which they toured Europe, and married in the 1960s. Their dance training and early careers are discussed briefly in the opening sections of the book. These sections set the scene for an account of the more than thirty years they spent leading an independent ballet company, International Ballet Caravan,* later Alexander Roy London Ballet Theatre.

Christina Gallea and Alexander Roy in the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote. Photo: © Jenny Walton

Those early sections of the book provide glimpses of some of the teachers and choreographers with whom they worked. From an Australian perspective, Gallea’s ongoing friendship and working relationship with Gore and Hinton have resulted in some insightful comments on these two artists. In addition to their work in 1955 with Australian Theatre Ballet, Gore and Hinton were in Australia with Ballet Rambert in the 1940s. However, very little has been written about their contribution to Australian dance so Gallea’s comments are more than welcome. But from a wider perspective Gallea also brings to life many others in the dance world who were working in London and Paris in the 1960s including teachers Audrey De Vos and Nora Kiss (Madame Nora), choreographer Léonide Massine and dancer and teacher Rosella Hightower.

The bulk of the book though records their life on the road travelling up and down England, across Europe, in Asia and through the Americas. It is an astonishing and absorbing story and full of marvellous, often hilarious anecdotes. Their repertoire was broad and largely original. Much of it was choreographed by Roy. Towards the end of the book Gallea writes: ‘We had given ourselves an outlet for almost unhindered creation, sometimes experimentation, and in doing this formed our own very individual style’. Their determination and their dedication to working independently seemed to know no bounds.

But what I found so arresting about the book was Gallea’s strong visual sensibility and her capacity to translate that sensibility into words. There’s her description of Paris in the 1960s: the cafes, the metro, the pissoirs, the clochards, the smells of ‘garlic, red wine and body odour’, the apartments with their unusual bathroom facilities. And her writing about food, as in her description of a meal taken in the Auvergne region of France ‘…boeuf en daube, made with the rich dark meat of the Camargue cattle which had marinated for a day in the equally rich and dark wine of the Languedoc…’. There are some evocative accounts of outdoor performances around the world and descriptions of theatres in various locations—in Quito, Ecuador, for example, where the auditorium held 4,000 people and sat in Gallea’s eyes ‘somewhere between a baroque cathedral and a 1930s movie palace’. And of course there are many stories about difficulties with accommodation, venues, transport, lighting rigs, contracts, collecting payment and so on.

This is not an academic book. Its subtitle is ‘A life in dance’ and that’s exactly what the book is about—a life spent dancing with all its problems and pleasures. Gallea writes as a kind of summary, ‘It had been an extraordinary adventure, foolhardy, no doubt, and if the workload had often been unbearable, the rewards had been many.’ It is so easy to live that adventure vicariously through the pages of this book. I haven’t enjoyed a dance book so much for a long time.

Michelle Potter, 12 July 2012

Christina Gallea Roy, Here today, gone tomorrow: a life in dance  (Sussex: Book Guild Publishing, 2012)
Hardback, 338 pp. ISBN 978-1-84624-690-6

RRP £17.99. Available through many online sites.

*There is a kind of Australian bonus in the accounts of International Ballet Caravan. Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon performed with the company briefly in the 1970s. Here today, gone tomorrow thus provides background for the early years of the Murphy/Vernon story.

At the Sign of the Harlequin’s Bat. Isabelle Stoughton

Dance Books: Harlequin’s Bat cover

Last June I received a query about a particular photo of Olga Spessivtseva. An exchange of emails resulted and it transpired that the enquirer was the son of Isabelle Stoughton, whose recollections of working for publisher and writer Cyril Beaumont were published by Dance Books late in 2011 under the title At the Sign of the Harlequin’s Bat: My Years with Cyril Beaumont. I don’t think we really resolved the issue of the photo but the correspondence gave reading the book an added interest.

What is immediately attractive about this book is that it doesn’t pretend to be something that it’s not. It is simply a book of recollections randomly gathered together. It is written in quite a lively manner and it is easy to keep reading from beginning to end (and it’s not a long read), and easy to imagine or visualise the situations described. Having said that I have to add that it is a little uncritical, which is a bit annoying occasionally, but then that’s part of it not pretending to be something that it’s not. Isabelle Stoughton was fond of her employer and proud of his knowledge and expertise, and this comes through quite clearly.

Stoughton went to work for Cyril Beaumont in the 1950s and stayed until her marriage later that decade. It was a time when behaviour was more strictly codified than it is today. She says of her leaving to get married that in the 1950s married women only stayed on at work after marriage if either they were in financial need or had a profession. She was in neither category. There were conventions to be observed. There were also certain behaviours that were not mentioned except in enigmatic or ambiguous terms. So Beaumont’s friend (and Stoughton’s too), Montie Morris, was described by Stoughton’s mother as ‘Not a marrying man’. The book becomes to a certain extent a rather quaint reminder of 1950s rules of social behaviour.

But there are some interesting sections about the dance and dancers of the period as well. So many people with names that are iconic today passed through the doors of Beaumont’s bookstore at 75 Charing Cross Road, London. So many became close friends. I especially enjoyed the letter sent by Beaumont to Stoughton from Edinburgh in 1955 describing performances by the Royal Danish Ballet, including Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet, and the company’s excursion on Sunday ‘through wonderful Sylphide country’. And there is plenty of gossip and stories of ruffled feathers (or worse). The more things change …

But in the end what the book does is bring Beaumont to life. Most of us know him only from afar as the author of books that are still referred to today. He was at performances that have become legendary or saw first hand works that have long departed from today’s repertoire. He was able to analyse and recall brilliantly. In Stoughton’s book, which is definitely not a biography, the man behind the writing is there with all his idiosyncrasies, his habits, his working processes (highly unusual in most respects) and his eccentric pronunciations. And despite her uncritical approach I think Stoughton manages to show us a man that perhaps we all wish we could have met.

It’s a lovely holiday read.

Michelle Potter, 3 January 2012

Isabelle Stoughton, At the Sign of the Harlequin’s Bat: My Years with Cyril Beaumont (Alton: Dance Books, 2011)
Paperback, 104 pp. ISBN 978-1-85273-150-2

Dance diary. December 2011

  • Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet

During 2011 I have published many thoughts on a whole variety of dance subjects, but there is no doubt that most interest has been generated by posts and comments associated with the Australian Ballet’s production of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. Traffic across this website has risen by 50% since the opening of R & J in September. My two posts on this show were quickly picked up. The original post has been the top post in terms of visitor numbers since October and the ‘second look’ post quickly took up the second spot from November onwards.*

The main thrust of the comments on R & J has been, it seems to me, that the story lost its depth as a result of the wildly changing locations and eras in which this production of the ballet is set. In response to one such comment following the Sydney season I wrote: ‘ I keep wondering about our expectations of ballet, and this ballet in particular. Does the story lose its profundity if it covers different territory and does so in a way that is not expected?’ I think most people believe the story did lose rather than gain in this production, but I still wonder and look forward to further comments when the work goes to Brisbane early in 2012.

  • Infinity: the Australian Ballet’s 2012 triple bill

Graeme Murphy is in the throes of creating another work for the Australian Ballet. It will form part of a triple bill entitled Infinity, which will open in Melbourne in February and comprise works by Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. While I have no inkling as to what Murphy will give us this time, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s December newsletter gives us a hint of what we might expect from Page’s work, which will use dancers from both his own Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet—definitely something to look forward to.

  • Scholars and Artists in Residence (SAR) Fellowship

In December I began my research into designer Kristian Fredrikson’s film and television commissions at the National Film and Sound Archive under a SAR Fellowship and will resume work there after the holiday break. I was especially pleased finally to be able to see a film called Undercover, made in 1983 and produced by David Elfick with Kristian Fredrikson as costume designer and Anna French as his assistant designer. This film is set in the 1920s and charts the growth of the Berlei undergarment enterprise in Australia. Fredrikson’s designs, especially for the women and for the dance sequences (choreographed by former Australian Ballet dancer Leigh Chambers) towards the end of the film, are beautifully realised within the spirit of the fashions of the 1920s. I suspect Fredrikson reimagined some of his work for Undercover when he began work on Tivoli, which he designed in 2001 for Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet. In any case, despite the reservations I had (before I had seen the film I have to admit) about the subject matter, Undercover is a fascinating film and I hope to arrange a screening of it at a later date.

As a result of a mention I made of the SAR Fellowship in my dance diary post for November I was surprised and delighted to be contacted by one of Fredrikson’s assistants who worked with him on a production of Oedipus Rex, produced in 1965 by Wal Cherry for his Emerald Hill Theatre in Melbourne. It was only recently that I discovered that Fredrikson had designed this show, one of his earliest Australian design commissions, and I hope to include reference to it in a Spotlight Talk I will be giving for the Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne, in April when I will also talk about Fredrikson’s other early designs in New Zealand and Australia.

  • Meryl Tankard

Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac returned to Sydney in December following the opening of Tankard’s latest work, Cinderella, for Leipzig Ballet in November. As well as passing on news about Cinderella, Tankard also told me of the success that The Oracle had when it was shown in Lyon in November. Tankard made The Oracle in 2009 as a solo work for dancer Paul White and one clipping from a Lyon newspaper that Tankard sent me referred to Paul White as ‘a revelation to the French public’ and ‘a god of the stage’ and suggested that his solo had instantly attracted a cult following. Here is a link to another review (in French or, if you prefer, in English translation) from the Lyon Capitale that lauds, once again, White’s remarkable physicality and virtuosity and Tankard’s and Lansac’s extraordinary work. The Oracle was the recipient of two Australian Dance Awards in 2010.

  • Paul Knobloch
Alonzo King
Alonzo King rehearsing Daria Ivanova and Paul Knobloch in Figures of thought, Lausanne, June 2011. Photo: Valerie Lacaze.

Australian dancer Paul Knobloch was in Canberra over the holiday season visiting family and friends. Knobloch is excited at the new direction his career is about to take. He will take up a contract in February with Alonzo King LINES Ballet based in San Francisco. King recently made a work called Figures of thought for Béjart Ballet Lausanne, where Knobloch has been working for the past few years. King offered Knobloch a contract after working with him in Lausanne.

The BBL website has a photo gallery from this work. It contains several images of Knobloch in rehearsal. [Update April 2019: link no longer available].

  • Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet

In December The Canberra Times published my review of the Australian Ballet’s most recent publication, Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet. Here is a link to the article.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2011

*The third most popular post for both November and December was that relating to Stanton Welch and the other Australians working in Houston, Texas.

Dance diary. October 2011

  • Texas Ballet Theater

It’s surprising whom one meets walking down a Dallas street on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Two somewhat frilly mice from Nutcracker for example—perhaps not dressed for combat despite the menacing gestures!
Or two young dancers dressed in tutus.

Texas Ballet Theater, currently directed by Ben Stevenson, was promoting its forthcoming Nutcracker season. The appearance of dancers on this occasion was part of the last day of ‘Art in October’, a celebration of the Dallas arts district with its top class museums and theatres.

  • it’s all good
It’s all good, QL2Dance, 2011

I was impressed by QL2’s annual performance for younger dancers, this year entitled it’s all good and being an examination through movement of the notions of language and truth. It was not so much the choreography that impressed me: it was fairly basic, perhaps a little of necessity, and somewhat unimaginative in my opinion. But I was impressed by the production values that were in play. The young cast (they ranged in age from 8 to 17) knew a fair bit about stage techniques and behaved largely in a very professional manner. For this their director, Ruth Osborne, deserves praise as does whoever designed the simple, easy to dance in costumes. One or two of the younger of the young performers looked as though they had the potential to go on to a professional career.

  • Ballets Russes publication

A number of visitors to this site have asked me to post a review of the recent Ballets Russes publication. This review was published last month by The Canberra Times. Here is the link.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2011

Mirrors and Scrims. Marcia B Siegel

Marcia Siegel’s recently published collection of reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims: the life and afterlife of ballet, is a real stunner. Such collections are usually useful to dip into to find a contemporary opinion when researching a particular work, choreographer or era. Mirrors and Scrims is, of course, useful in this way. But it also offers so much more. Siegel’s writing is perceptive, lucid, coherent and honest. It also often pushes the reader to investigate or question further his or her own assumptions about dance. What a delight that is in this twenty-first century when much of the readily available dance writing is little more than a regurgitation of a puffed-up media release.

On an obvious level, Siegel has an enviable capacity to describe what she sees on stage in terms that can easily be visualised by the reader. Take her description of the second movement of Balanchine’s Mozart Violin Concerto for example. Siegel writes:

‘In this movement, essentially a long adagio pas de deux, the corps is always present, sometimes as witness, posing in lines and semicircles around the principal couple, and sometimes, strangely, forming little sub-groups that seem engaged in their own private colloquies. Then, toward the end, the women become almost an abstraction, coming forward in a straight line so that they discreetly mask the solo man and woman just as she’s fallen into his embrace.’

This is deceptively simple writing. On the one hand it gives us a clear, straightforward idea of the formal structure of this movement of the work. But on the other, it also subtly gives an insight into an emotional underpinning with just an apposite word or two, judiciously placed.

At the same time, Siegel’s writing has the capacity to analyse a work within its wider cultural and historical context. Take for example her discussion of the revival of Balanchine’s Cotillon by Tulsa Ballet. She writes:

‘The ballet is a clear choreographic bridge between the lush, narrative Diaghilev era ballets and the neoclassical austerity of the latter-day Balanchine. It does, however, represent a strain of romanticism and fantasy that the choreographer kept to the end of his life.’

The whole discussion of the Cotillon revival is a fascinating read, as are Siegel’s discussions of other revivals from the Diaghilev era, a subject that is clearly of great interest to her.

Siegel has also worked through many philosophical issues as they relate to dance writing and reviewing. She takes a clear, personal stand. Right from the beginning she states:

‘I see myself as both a demystifyer and a validator, sometimes an interpreter, but not a judge.’ She fearlessly carries through with this stance. In an analysis of the position of the much-admired critic Arlene Croce (as understood from her reviews), Siegel writes:

‘I think a critic has to take even mavericks and crackpots at their word. In not doing so, Arlene Croce places herself above the artists. She implies she knows better than they do what’s right for dance. To my mind, that’s the one thing a critic isn’t allowed’.

The essay in which this comment occurs, ‘Balanchine and beyond’, is full of points for further discussion and development in those situations (I wish they occurred more frequently) where those who love dance come together to discuss dance and how to look at it. Reading ‘Balanchine and beyond’, I couldn’t help thinking of the concept of intentional fallacy, the idea (probably unfashionable at the present time) that what an artist intends is not a standard by which to measure a work. Intentional fallacy veers onto a slightly different pathway from Siegel’s discussion of the need ‘to take mavericks and crackpots at their word’ but it is nevertheless a related and equally as interesting issue.

Mirrors and Scrims covers close to three decades of Siegel’s writing in publications that include Ballet Review, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, Dance Now, Dance on Camera Journal, Hudson Review, Village Voice and Washington Post Book World. And although the excerpts I have quoted above all relate to Balanchine in some way, the writing in this collection covers the work of many choreographers. It also covers many genres of dance and analyses many formats in which dance reaches an audience, including dance on film and books about dance.

Siegel notes in her introduction that she has organised the entries around themes of authenticity and change. To give further shape to the collection she has grouped her selections into seven sections. Each section reads well as a variation on a theme making the book a satisfying, and often an edifying journey rather than simply a chronological one as often happens with such collections of essays. And as with all collections of this nature, some pieces and some themes will touch a individual nerve in a special way. I particularly admired Siegel’s obituary for the critic Edwin Denby, ‘Edwin Denby, 1903-1983’—a moving and personal tribute, which includes the following comment:

‘He knew long before I did that dancing is like living, and that the better we can perceive the ordinary specialness in living, the better we’ll see the out-of-the-ordinary specialness of dancing.’

I also relished reading an essay called ‘Reclaiming the ordinary’. It deals with PASTForward, a program staged by Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project that revived some of the works from the Judson era in American dance. At one point Siegel writes:

‘Judson made the acceptable dance vocabulary immensely bigger by reducing the stimulus: with almost nothing to look at, there’s suddenly so much more.’

Marcia Siegel knows dance and is not afraid to call it the way it is. Mirrors and Scrims deservedly won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen Memorial Prize.

Michelle Potter, 7 November 2010

Marcia B. Siegel, Mirrors and Scrims: the life and afterlife of ballet, Wesleyan University Press, 2010
416 pp; 27 illustrations
ISBN 978-0-8195-6875-5 (cloth) USD85.00
ISBN 978-0-8195-6926-4 (paperback) USD27.95

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

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, 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