Anne Hendricks Bass, who has died in New York at the age of 78, was one of the most generous donors to the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. I met her very soon after I arrived in New York in 2006 to begin my tenure as Curator of the Dance Division. I have so many fond memories of the occasions I worked with her on one or other of her projects. I loved that she was so passionate about dance, ballet in particular, and the visual arts, and that she worked tirelessly to support and promote the things that mattered to her. She was an absolute perfectionist, which I also loved. I count myself fortunate that I met her in so many different situations. Here are some of my favourite memories.
Anne had an apartment on 5th Avenue and I recall clearly going there on one occasion on official Dance Division business. Stepping out of the elevator I was ushered in without noticing what I was walking past. On the way out I almost tripped over what I didn’t notice initially. It was a Degas sculpture, the one I use as the main image on the home page of this website, Little dancer aged fourteen (1878-1881). I was staggered to be so close to it and very relieved I hadn’t tripped over it!
Anne also invited me to work with her on weekends with some material she had gathered for a film she wanted to make about a young Cambodian, Sokvannara Sar, whose familiar name is Sy. Anne brought Sy to New York to be trained as a ballet dancer after seeing him dance in Cambodia on a visit there in 2000. Those working weekends were spent on her property in South Kent, Connecticut, in truly beautiful surroundings. There were several buildings on the estate and my husband and I were accommodated in the cottage in the image below, seen through the surrounding wintery landscape. The film that we worked on in Connecticut, Dancing across Borders, was made after I had left New York but I will forever remember the beautiful countryside of Anne’s Connecticut estate, those mornings and afternoons examining material, and the dinners with Anne and her partner, artist Julian Lethbridge, in the ‘big house’ each night.
During my tenure as Curator in the Dance Division Anne also initiated and funded a number of significant projects. The two that stand out for me are Speaking of Dancing and the Khmer Dance Project. Both were basically oral history projects. With Speaking of Dancing I had the honour of interviewing Lupe Serrano, which was an audio only interview, and I recall sitting in on another interview, a filmed one this time, with designer Holly Hynes. Other interviews were recorded after I left and interviewees included Carolyn Brown, Wendy Whelan, Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel.
The Khmer Dance Project began just before I left and was designed to record, on film, interviews with three generations of artists, including dancers, musicians and singers, who kept dance alive during and after the regime of the Khmer Rouge.
The only photo I have of Anne in my personal collection is below. Taken by an unidentified photographer, it shows Anne on the right of the image standing next to Sy on his first visit to New York from Cambodia.
There are countless expensive-to-use images of Anne on the web, but I knew her as she appears in the image above. Anne was an exceptional human being whose humility and generous nature shone whether she was at a glamorous social gathering or standing in a New York street.
The flowers below were a gift from her to me for nothing more than the fact that I was happy to talk to her about my background, especially the work I had done at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, which led to the invitation to work with her on weekends. Who else would send flowers following what I regarded as just a friendly, informal chat? That was Anne.
Anne Hendricks Bass. Born Indianapolis, Indiana, 19 October 1941; died New York City, New York, 1 April 2020
This website is now ten years old. While I initially went it alone, Jennifer Shennan from New Zealand joined me as contributor in 2014. Between us we have written 650 reviews, news items, and articles since the site went live in 2009.
My first post was really just a very small photo diary of an amazing few days I spent in 2008 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a job for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It was the last job I did for the Division and was an initiative of one of the Division’s most generous donors, Anne H. Bass. In those few days in Phnom Penh I helped set up a project to interview dancers who had survived the Pol Pot regime and who had gone on to perform, teach and pass on the rich Cambodian dance heritage. I sat in as an observer for the first two interviews, one with Em Theay, the other with Soth Sam On.
The full project, the Khmer Dance Project, was completed a few years ago and several of the interviews are now available online (with English subtitles as the interviews were conducted in the Khmer language). Here is a link to the online version of the very first interview, that with Em Theay, which was conducted on the terrace in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
I kept a diary of daily events during the short time I was there, largely so I could report back to the donor in New York. Looking back over what I wrote, the diary entries focused mostly on technical issues and how to improve the methodology of the project. But I also discovered a non-technical (more or less) incident that I had forgotten. I wrote for day five:
The working part of the day began with a tuk tuk issue when my regular tuk tuk man was not at the entrance to the hotel. I eventually got to Bophana [an audio-visual centre in Phnom Penh] but had to ask Pen [Hun Pen, the interviewer for the project] to work out whether this other guy was prepared to stay with us for half a day. Yes and no. Eventually no. Pen found someone else. I went to the interview location [the home of Soth Sam On] in the car with the crew. Pen, Pen’s boyfriend and Suppya [Suppya Nut, member of the project team] took the tuk tuk. The car got lost and the driver (the translator) took great pleasure in pointing out to me a rat eating at the garbage in one of the streets we went down.
The whole experience, despite the odd rat, was an amazing one and I returned to Cambodia on a private visit several months later when I visited the temples in Siem Reap. The featured image on this post is from that visit.
Adelaide Festival 2020
Next year’s Adelaide Festival has some interesting dance events. I am especially looking forward to Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois grandes fugues, a triple bill from three choreographers whose contemporary dance works I have always enjoyed—Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and Maguy Marin.* All three have exceptionally individualistic choreographic styles and for this production have created separate works to the same musical composition—the 1825 Grosse Fugue by Beethoven. Judith Mackrell, writing in The Guardian in London, calls the show ‘one of the most exhilarating, uncompromising evenings of dance I’ve seen in ages.’
Then, having recently interviewed Lloyd Newson for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, I am looking forward to his revival of Enter Achilles. In addition, Australian Dance Theatre will be performing in a production of Mozart’s Requiem as directed by Romeo Castellucci.
For more information on the Adelaide Festival 2020, follow this link to the Festival website. There you can read more about the items mentioned above, as well as other dance works being performed, and can download the full program.
Norton Owen and Jacob’s Pillow
I was delighted to discover recently that my friend and colleague in the United States, Norton Owen, was honoured with the award of the prestigious Louis Rachow Distinguished Service Award by the Theatre Library Association in the US. The image and biography below are from the Association’s website.
Norton Owen is a curator, writer, and archivist with more than 45 years of professional experience in dance. He has been associated with Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival since 1976 and has been Director of Preservation since 1990, overseeing the PillowTalks series as well as all activities involving documentation, exhibitions, audience engagement, and archival access. He is the curator of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, an acclaimed online video resource, and host of a new podcast entitled PillowVoices. In 2000, Dance/USA selected him for its Ernie Award, honoring “unsung heroes who have led exemplary lives in dance.” He has also received awards from the Martha Hill Dance Fund, Dance Films Association, and the José Limón Dance Foundation, and he is a past chair of the Dance Heritage Coalition. In recognition of his 40th anniversary at Jacob’s Pillow, the Norton Owen Reading Room was dedicated in his honor.
See also Norton’s advice for visitors to the beautiful venue that is Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts, at this link. I hope to get back there in 2020.
In the wings …
As we head further into the eleventh year, watch this website for reviews and/or news of these upcoming November events:
Sydney Dance Company’s Bonachela/Obarzanek, which is season two in the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations;
Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella from Queensland Ballet on tour in Canberra;
Bespoke from Queensland Ballet in Brisbane with new choreography from Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and Loughlan Prior;
Loughlan Prior’s Hansel and Gretel from Royal New Zealand Ballet;
Stanton Welch’s Sylvia during the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season; and
Being in London is always full of dance surprises. Apart from performances, the city’s galleries almost always have a dance-related exhibition, or a small display featuring dance items from their permanent collections. This November, for example, the Courtauld Gallery had a particularly interesting show, Rodin and dance. The essence of movement. It examined Rodin’s mouvements de danse, until now a little known a series of sculptures, with accompanying drawings, made towards the end of his life.
The first room of the exhibition had a section that looked at the inspiration Rodin drew from the visit to France by the Royal Cambodian Ballet in 1906, which I have discussed briefly in a different context elsewhere on this site. This room included a small number of the very beautiful drawings in pencil, watercolour and gouache that Rodin made of the Cambodian dancers, along with photographs of contemporary dancers who also influenced Rodin, including Loïe Fuller and Ruth St Denis, and some photographs of Rodin himself.
Auguste Rodin sketching a Cambodian dancer in France in 1906. Photo: Émile Sanremo
The second, and main room contained material devoted to the mouvements de danse, a collection of terracotta and plaster figures, with some bronze castings, and accompanying drawings showing extreme dance movements and acrobatic poses. Although the drawings had been exhibited during Rodin’s lifetime, the sculptures had not. While they were all fascinating to look at—and there is a handsome exhibition catalogue (Rodin and dance. The essence of movement (London: Paul Holberton, 2016)—a model of Vaslav Nijinsky (in fact two models, one in plaster and one in bronze) attracted my attention.
Auguste Rodin, bronze casting of a model of Vaslav Nijinsky (original model 1912)
Rodin is known to have been at the opening night of Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faun in Paris in May 1912 and followed up with an article in the Parisian newspaper Le Matin in which he showered Nijinsky with praise. Shortly afterwards, Nijinsky reputedly visited Rodin in his studio when it is thought the model for the sculpture was made. Looking at the sculpture it is impossible not to notice a certain turbulence and intensity in the figure. It is quite breathtaking in fact.
The Courtauld also has a collection of bronzes and paintings by Degas including the one shown as the featured image in this post. This particular bronze made me wonder about how it was made. Did a model pose, and if so was she a dancer? Most dancers, I think, would automatically take a pose with the lifted arm in opposition to the pointed foot, rather than same arm as leg as in the sculpture. Or did Degas simply model from memory, or just by adding body parts unthinkingly? But however it was made, this sculpture looked particularly beautiful as a shadowy figure with light streaming through the window.
The other major show with a strong dance component was an exhibition, Picasso Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery. One room was devoted to portraits and some photographs of Picasso’s first wife, Diaghilev dancer Olga Khokhlova. While the portraits and drawings were fascinating, so too were some photographs of Olga, including two of her on the roof of the Minerva Hotel in Rome and some wonderful home movie footage of the family—Picasso, Olga, their son Paulo, and the family dog enjoying some light-hearted family moments.
A portrait of Olga appears on the cover of the catalogue (Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2016).
Other rooms in the Picasso Portraits exhibition contained items relating to Ballets Russes personnel including composers, designers and of course Jean Cocteau looking particularly dashing in one pencil drawing in two dimensional, Egyptian style representing, so the caption said, Cocteau’s well known vanity.
Michelle Potter, 12 November 2016
Featured image: Edgar Degas, bronze sculpture of a dancer, right foot forward, the Courtauld Gallery, London. Photo: Michelle Potter
In September The Canberra Times published my preview of the Australian Ballet’s 2012 season, a review of the recent book The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond under the title ‘Dancing round a few home truths’, and my review of Graeme Murphy’s new take on Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet has certainly sparked some discussion and the amount of traffic that the extended review has generated over this website has been quite astonishing. It has more than quadrupled the previous record of visits to any one post. The suggestion that this Romeo and Juliet is just not a profound work has been made, not only in published comments but also in other communications to me. But whatever we think, it appears to be selling remarkably well and it will be interesting to see what Sydney audiences make of it when it opens there in December.
Editing and design began in September on an article of mine to be published in the December issue of The National Library Magazine. This article looks at the ballet designs of Arthur Boyd for Robert Helpmann’s Elektra, and those of Sidney Nolan for Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring. Both ballets were given their premieres by the Royal Ballet in London in the early 1960s. We’ve never seen the MacMillan Rite of Spring here in Australia, but Elektra was staged by the Australian Ballet in 1966 when there were some interesting changes to Boyd’s designs, which in fact had already undergone changes before they even made it to the Covent Garden stage.
Nijinsky’s costume for Le Dieu bleu
While the Romeo and Juliet post has attracted instant interest, the post from late last year on Nijinsky’s costume for the Blue God quietly continues to generate visits. I was recently contacted by author Denise Heywood, whose book Cambodian dance: celebration of the gods was published in 2008 in Bangkok by River Books. The book is an interesting examination of the history of Cambodian dance and reproduces some remarkable photographs from across many decades. Denise suggests in her recent communication with me that it is not just the costume has links to the Khmer culture, as I suggested in the post, but the choreography for the ballet Le Dieu bleu must surely also have been influenced by Khmer dance, especially the ‘slow, statuesque movements’.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet
The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just announced its 2012 season, its first full year under the directorship of Ethan Stiefel. Stiefel will begin the year in February with a very American program entitled NYC, ‘New Young Classic’ (although the other meaning of that acronym is in there too). NYC will feature works by Larry Keigwin, Benjamin Millepied and George Balanchine. Keigwin has a big following in New York and he will create a new work on the dancers of RNZB. Millepied is now probably best known for his contribution to The Black Swan, but he has been making dances for several years for a range of high profile companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet. RNZB will dance Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini (2005). The program will also include Who Cares?, Balanchine’s popular and beautifully polished work set to songs by George Gershwin.
Later in the year RNZB will restage its production of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella and in November Gillian Murphy will take the lead role in a new staging of Giselle to be co-produced by Stiefel and that exceptional interpreter of the role of Albrecht, Johann Kobborg.
Canberra is currently in the middle of Floriade, its annual celebration of spring (although the weather is decidedly cold). I have never forgotten a remarkable Floriade, the only one I have ever attended I have to admit, back in 1990. The Meryl Tankard Company was then Canberra’s resident dance company and Tankard staged Court of Flora outdoors against the backdrop of Commonwealth Gardens.
Inspired by the engravings in J. J. Grandville’s book, Les Fleurs animées first published in 1847, Court of Flora was given eleven performances in October 1990. Its spectacular costumes, designed by Sydney-based couturier Anthony Phillips, drew sighs of delight from audiences. So too did the ability of Tankard’s dancers to pose decoratively behind bushes and around trees while at the same time investing the flowers that they represented with clearly discernible human qualities, as indeed Grandville had done with his illustrations. In particular, an impish Paige Gordon as Thistle and an elegant Carmela Care as Rose still remain in the mind’s eye.
The Little Mermaid
I continue to be confounded by Rex Reid’s Little Mermaid, the version he made for Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Company in 1967. All sources seem to indicate that it opened as part of a mixed bill on 1 September 1967, but reviews seem to have appeared in Melbourne papers on the same day, 1 September. There is probably a simple explanation—perhaps there was a preview before 1 September to which reviewers were invited? But if anyone was there and can assure me that it did open on 1 September, despite reviews appearing on the same day, I would be thrilled to hear.
Traffic across the site during September increased by over 20% compared with August, due largely to the exceptional interest in Romeo and Juliet. The review attracted a large number of visits, more than any other post in the two year history of the site. Not surprisingly visits from Melbourne topped the list. Other Australian cities generating significant numbers of visits during September were, in order, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide.
Some small updates will be made to the site in the next few weeks. On the home page I am having a link to the full tag cloud inserted under the list of top 20 tags. This will facilitate searching from the home page.
I am also having two new sub-pages added to the Resource page. One will be for National Library of Australia articles and will allow me to separate articles written for National Library of Australia News/The National Library Magazine from other online publications. The second will be for articles written for theatre programs.
In the very glamorous exhibition, Ballets Russes: the art of costume, currently showing until late March 2011 at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, one of the most discussed items is the tunic from the costume for the Blue God from the ballet of the same name—in its French form Le Dieu bleu.
Its popular appeal rests largely on the fact that the tunic was worn by Vaslav Nijinsky, creator of the role of the Blue God and dancer and choreographer with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Not only was the costume worn by Nijinsky and as far as we know by no-one else, but traces of the make-up Nijinsky wore as the Blue God can still be found as marks on the inside the costume.
But we also know that the ballet was not a major success and was given very few performances after its 1912 premiere and quickly disappeared from the repertoire. That there were only a few performances of the ballet is both a blessing and a curse.
From a positive point of view it means that the costume, designed by Léon Bakst one of Diaghilev’s best known designers, is in excellent condition. While this situation reflects in part the exemplary conservation that has been carried out by the National Gallery’s conservation staff, it also reflects the fact that despite that the fact that the tunic is almost 100 years old it has not suffered from the wear and tear that constant use has on the fabric, decoration and stitching of dance costumes. Its excellent condition may also relate to the fact that it was made by two of the top Parisian costumiers of the time, M. Landoff and Marie Muelle. Madame Muelle in particular is known to have insisted that only the best quality fabrics be used and that decorative elements be appliquéd or embroidered rather than stencilled onto the fabric. She was also said to have had a secret metal thread that never tarnished.
A close-up look at the costume reveals that it encapsulates many of the principles that Bakst used throughout his design career, in particular a use of different textures in the one costume and daringly juxtaposed patterns and colours. He always made his interests, which included his understanding that dance was about movement, very clear in his designs on paper.
The costume is largely made from silk, satin, velvet ribbon, braid and embroidery thread, although set against the luxury silken fabrics are panels made from a simpler cotton or rayon material patterned with a floral, lotus-inspired design. The tunic’s dominant colours are pink, blue, gold and green and black and triangular and diamond patterns sit beside curves and half circles. Emerald green jewel-like sequins spill down strips of olive green braid.
Some parts of the tunic have been machine stitched. Others have been sewn by hand. The faux mother of pearl decorations along the hem of the tunic, for example, were hand sewn onto the fabric and the tacking stitches joining them together in a row can be seen where some of the decorations, now extremely fragile, have fallen off. The tunic has a row of metal fasteners, hooks and eyes, running right down the back—no zips, no Velcro in those days. Nijinsky would have simply held out his arms as the tunic was slipped on by his dresser, who would then have hooked him into the costume.
The Gallery’s collection also includes the gold headdress for the costume. It is equally as fascinating to study close up. Its double row of decorative points attached to a tight fitting skull cap is made of metallic gauze stitched by hand onto a wire frame with metallic thread—perhaps even with Mme Muelle’s untarnishable secret thread?
But in a more negative vein, because the work was performed on such a small number of occasions, what do we know about the choreography? Probably very little really. However, a number of historians have noted that Bakst and Michel Fokine, Le Dieu bleu‘s choreographer, had been deeply impressed by performances given in St Petersburg in 1900 by the dancers of the Royal Siamese Court and had incorporated choreographic and visual ideas from these performances into several Ballets Russes productions on which they worked, including Le Dieu bleu. Still photographs of Nijinsky show that static poses rather than a fluid and expressionistic form of movement may have been dominant, recalling the dance style of the Siamese dancers.
But another dance troupe from the other side of the world probably had just as much influence on the creation of Le Dieu bleu as did the dancers of the Royal Siamese Court. In 1906 the Royal Cambodian Ballet came to France for the Colonial Exhibition staged in Marseille, Cambodia being at that stage a protectorate of France. The Cambodians gave several performances in Paris in July of that year, just as Diaghilev was in Paris preparing for his major exhibition of Russian paintings, which was presented a little later that year at the Salon d’automne. It is hard to imagine that Diaghilev and his team would have been unaware of the Cambodians. They caused a sensation in Paris and had a major influence on a number of French artists, including the sculptor Auguste Rodin who followed the company to Marseille and executed a major series of drawings of the dancers. Many newspapers, including the Parisian daily Le Petit Journal and the influential Le Petit Parisien, carried news of and advertisements for the Cambodians and most carried drawings and posters of the dancers against a background of Cambodian temples.
Bakst appears to have drawn on these printed sources for his backcloth, which features a huge rock face carved with faces of gods. It clearly recalls the posters in Parisian newspapers, which in turn recall the huge faces carved into the rock at the gateways to the Angkor Thom temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Costumes for subsidiary characters in the ballet as held by the Victoria and Albert Museum and on display in their London exhibition, Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes 1909–1929, confirm that Bakst was indeed influenced by the interest in Cambodia that was generated in 1906. In particular the costume for a Little God, illustrated on p. 79 of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s catalogue, shows a towering headdress with four god-like faces smiling beatifically out to the potential auditorium. The headdress looks totally unlike anything a Cambodian dancer would have worn (or currently wears). The faces look a little more like Western-style putti than anything else and one can’t help but wonder whether Bakst only ever saw the cover of French magazines of the time and never the dancers themselves. However, the Cambodian influence is clearly there.
But the tunic for the Blue God will always evoke the man who created the role and who caused so many scandals for the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev, that is Vaslav Nijinsky. The power of his name, like that of Anna Pavlova, will always make anything associated with him appealing to a wide spectrum of the population. One of Nijinsky’s colleagues, the ballerina Lydia Sokolova, has described in her memoirs the first sight the audience would have had of Nijinsky as the Blue God. She writes that he was seen ‘at the top of a flight of wide steps at the back of the stage, seated on a throne with legs crossed, holding a flower’. He was wearing the tunic now on display in Ballets Russes: the art of costume.
This post is an amplified and enhanced version of my article ‘Homage to the Blue God’ first published by The Canberra Times on 18 December 2010.
The website for the National Gallery’s exhibition is at this link.
Bell, Robert (ed.). Ballets Russes: the art of costume (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 2010)
Buckle, Richard (ed). Dancing for Diaghilev. The memoirs of Lydia Sokolova. Paperback edition (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1989)
Misler, Nicoletta. ‘Siamese dancing and the Ballets Russes’ in Nancy van Norman Baer (ed.), The art of enchantment: the Ballets Russes 1909–1929 (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988), pp. 78–83
Musée Rodin. Rodin and the Cambodian dancers: his final passion (Paris: Editions du Musée Rodin, 2006)
Pritchard, Jane (ed.). Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes 1909–1929 (V & A Publishing, 2010)
Comments on this post are now closed. The discussion continues on part two.
For two months in early 2007 I worked with Anne Bass on the initial stages of what would eventually become Dancing across borders, a documentary film on the career to date of Sokvannara Sar, a dancer who grew up in Cambodia and who is now dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. The film has been hugely successful since its release in 2009 and the website that documents its production, and that also gives contextual material about other initiatives including the Khmer Dance Project, is well worth a look.
In early 2008 the Royal Cambodian Ballet was scheduled to tour Holland, France and Slovenia. This picture gallery briefly documents a ceremony held on 20 March 2008 in an open theatre space close to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh at which offerings were made and blessings sought prior to this tour.
In March 2008 I was generously funded to travel to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to help set up a project to record the stories of older Cambodian classical dancers who had had major careers with the Royal Cambodian Ballet in the decades before the infamous regime of Pol Pot, who had survived that regime, and who were now passing on their knowledge to younger dancers.
The photos published here were taken during that week in Phnom Penh. They record the process of filming an interview with one of those dancers, Em Theay, a vibrant and dynamic woman in her seventies. Em Theay was interviewed by Hun Pen in the early morning of 22 March 2008 outside the National Museum. Em Theay’s generosity in sharing her knowledge and her passion for her art form shine through every photograph.
Filming Em Theay, Phnom Penh, March 2008. All photographs by Michelle Potter (taken with permission)
Michelle Potter, 1 June 2009
Featured image: Em Theay and camera crew, Phnom Penh, March 2008