Like most arts companies around the world, the Australian Ballet is offering audiences a streaming service during the COVID-19 lockdown. Each performance is available for a short time only, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, first seen in Australia in 2013, is the second offering on the program. The cast is led by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in a partnership that is both moving and elegant. The performance was filmed in Brisbane in 2016.*
This Cinderella is not the usual take on the old fairy tale, although the characters from that fairy tale are present, albeit often in something of a new guise. For the most part the story also follows the narrative of a young girl being brought up in less than agreeable circumstances who finds love after attending a ball, and who then goes through the process of waiting for her Prince to find her after she leaves the ball in a hurry.
The unusual characteristics of Ratmansky’s version were made all the more powerful given that I had, the day before, watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella created originally for the New Zealand company in 2007. Hampson’s production had some lovely moments—a moving prologue, for example, in which we witnessed a young Cinderella at her mother’s funeral. It set a context for the rest of the story. There were some exceptional performances too including Jon Trimmer’s brilliant portrayal of the Royal Shoemaker who attempts to discover the inherent qualities of the shoe left behind at the ball by Cinderella.
But choreographically Hampson’s work was not especially inventive and fell within a very traditional balletic mode. Ratmansky’s choreography was still classically based but there was a distinctive touch to it. For a start, there were fewer easily recognisable classroom-style steps, and a much freer use of the arms and upper body.
In addition to this distinctive choreographic vocabulary, I was struck in particular by Ratmansky’s approach to the relationship between his vocabulary and Prokofiev’s score. Watching his choreography made the score sound quite different from what I had heard while watching the Hampson production. Ratmansky appeared to be strongly motivated by the music, more so than Hampson it seemed to me, and created steps specifically to match passages, even notes, in the score. This is not to say that Hampson’s choreography was unmusical, just that for Ratmansky music seemed to be the major force in the development of his movement.
I have reviewed the Ratmansky Cinderella elsewhere on this website so don’t intend to go further into the production. Here is a link to my original review. There is a place for both a traditional production, such as Hampson gives us, and a production that moves in a different direction. The same holds for Nutcracker, Swan Lake and others of the classics. But I loved being able to see the Hampson and the Ratmansky Cinderella side by side. It opened my eyes to an aspect of Ratmansky’s work that I hadn’t noticed in such depth before.
Michelle Potter, 23 April 2020
*For copyright reasons the Australian Ballet’s streamed performances are available to viewers in Australia only.
Royal New Zealand Ballet is making available a range of videos of productions from the repertoire for free home viewing for a brief period during the covid-19 lockdown. The dress rehearsal of their 2015 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream screened last week.
This ballet was originally commissioned by director Ethan Stiefel in a promising initiative for Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet to share resources, production and performance rights. The project could have grown to include other productions, teacher and dancer exchanges and residencies, and the concept of trans-Tasman co-productions was heartening. The premiere season of MND was staged here during the term of the next director Francesco Ventriglia.
The shimmering overture of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes a humming faerie world. The dark blue-black midnight stage flickers alight with fireflies and glow worms. This is a visit to Waitomo Caves, after-dark Zealandia, Otari Bush or Botanical Gardens, the remembered hush of night in those places. You don’t need a grandchild holding your hand, though it helps, to know the feeling that magic could be out there, or look there, or quick another one over there. This entire production delivers on the promise caught in those quivering opening moments—with choreography, design and music inseparably part of what is arguably one of the best works in the company’s repertoire.
Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography drew galvanised performances from each of the dancers who were members of RNZB back in 2015. This viewing is a welcome reminder of their verve and style, the stage positively buzzing with the wit of a team of dancers who knew each other well and could together rise to a performance of such assured calibre. It is poignant in the extreme that we have loved and then lost so many of these artists in the swift turnover of dancers during the months that followed. There’s always a mobility of dancers amongst ballet companies but the scale and timing of that particular exodus wrought a major shift in the RNZB’s artistic identity.
Nigel Gaynor, music director back in the day, made an inspired full-length score by extending Mendelssohn’s original incidental music with seamlessly interpolated excerpts from others of his compositions. Gaynor conducted the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the result was a transport of delight.
Tracy Grant Lord produced fabulous designs for a number of major RNZB productions—for Christopher Hampsons’s Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet, as well as this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lighting design by Kendall Smith positively sparkles with the wit of illuminating fairies and caverns themselves, rather than simply throwing light at them.
My review in 2015 was based on the performance by Lucy Green as Titania, Qi Huan as Oberon, both splendidly cast. This video has Tonia Looker and Maclean Hopper as leads and they do an equally fine job. Harry Skinner plays Bottom with a grounded quality that delights without overplaying the role, revealing an actor’s sensibility. Kohei Iwamoto is the quintessential Puck that Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character—daredevil, wicked, witty, mercurial rascal. Whatever the role, Kohei has always absorbed his virtuosic technique into characterisation and never used it for display. Even to watch him in a studio class was to see how his strength, precision and swiftness could grow into grace and the sprezzatura that Shakespeare knew all about ‘…that you would e’er do nothing but that.’
You could be moved by every moment of this ballet, beginning with a vulnerable young child caught in the crossfire of his quarrelling parents and their eventual hard-earned reconciliation, but one hilarious mid-moment breaks in to the action narrative as all of the cast dash en diagonale across the stage in pursuit of each other for the wrong and/or the right reasons—it’s a like a side-stage glimpse of the backstage life of all these characters—a cheeky wave and a wink to savour forever.
The fairies are a shimmering line-up—Lucy Green and Mayu Tanigaito among them—and Scarlett’s sense of comic timing draws a host of terrific performances—from Abigail Boyle, Paul Mathews, Laura Saxon Jones, Joseph Skelton, William Fitzgerald, Loughlan Prior, Jacob Chown. These assured performers really did work as a magic team, lucky we were. ‘Hence away. Now all is well. One alone stand sentinel …’
A recent saga has seen Liam Scarlett’s career with the Royal Ballet and elsewhere collapse into apparent ruin. The media fair bristled with leaked early reports (oh how salaciousness boosts ratings) but now the investigation seems to be over and the word is mum with the Royal Ballet declaring ‘There were no matters to pursue…’ So through that vagueness all we know is the heartbreak of Scarlett’s gifts destroyed, his career for now anyway at a standstill. Let’s meantime be grateful for the wondrous talents and team that made this ballet in the first place, and hope there can be some eventual resolution to the current impasse. Good on RNZB for screening his choreographic masterwork.
Hansel & Gretel is choreographer
Loughlan Prior’s first full-length ballet, though he has a number of
accomplished short works (including a memorable Lark, for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald), as well as
choreographed films (including Memory
House, for Trimmer) already to his credit. Since this premiere, another of his works, The Appearance
of Colour, was
recently performed as part ofQueensland Ballet’s Bespoke program.
The energised success of Hansel & Gretel reveals the close rapport developed between Prior and composer Claire Cowan, who has produced a colourful and affecting score. Right from the first sounds (‘applause’ from orchestral percussion to walk the conductor to his podium), it is clear that the choreographer and composer share a sense of humour and fun. Conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington miss not a beat or a feat throughout.
Design by Kate Hawley, together with Jon Buswell’s lighting, delivers some striking effects. The opening visual, projected onto a gauze front curtain, is the number countdown of a film reel (the grandchildren whisper to ask , ‘Is this a ballet pretending to be a movie?’). A number of references to black and white silent movies of the 1920s are cleverly choreographed into the first scenes, making fitting resonance from the accompanying orchestra in the pit. A prologue of wealthy characters strutting in the street contrast with the poverty of the family of Hansel, Gretel and parents, with the father unable to sell his street brooms to anyone. There is a poignant scene of the hungry family around the table in their cabin, though the following long love duet between the parents seems to stall the choreographic pace somewhat.
Later, black and white scenes turn into the garish colours of cancan Candyland, aided and abetted by the Ice Cream Witch whose hurdy-gurdy bicycle is a creation Heath Robinson would have been proud of. A large cast of Dew Fairies, a Sandman, numerous confectionery and gingerbread assistants, and spooky creatures of the forest all offer a number of divertissements of entertainment and humour. There are echoes of the 1930s now, of Busby Berkeley film scenarios, with deliberate extravagances that send it in the direction of pantomime, leading, by their own admission, to sensory overload of props and costumes.
Spectacle is preferenced
over sustaining the narrative with its dark themes of the original version of
the Grimm brothers’ tale. In that regard, Prior has chosen to follow casting of
Humperdinck’s opera of the late 19th century, as well as the recent
choreographies by Liam Scarlett for the Royal Ballet and by Christopher Hampson
for Scottish Ballet. In those versions, the familiarity of the children’s
father bullied by a scheming cruel stepmother is converted to their simply
being poor but loving parents. This results in a weakening of the dramatic bite
and thematic link of evil between both Stepmother and Witch (read in some
interpretations as alter-egos of each other).
are dramatically involved in the original tale—sitting on the roof of the
family cottage, stealing the trail of breadcrumbs, leading the children to the
Witch’s lair, and finally back home. In this production the only birds are
portrayed in a brief scene by child extras, very fetchingly costumed in
raincoats with beak-shaped hoods, and carrying brooms to sweep up crumbs.
Perhaps more could have been made of the avian potential in the story since
birds are often convincingly stylised into ballet.
Highlight memories are of Hansel and Gretel—or should that be Gretel and Hansel since it’s the girl who always takes the initiative and makes sure little brother is in tow —with Shaun James Kelly as a naïve and playful boy, Kirby Selchow as the feisty older sister. The dazzling Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies, delivers radiantly, but also easily shifts into the syncopations of the jazz references that Prior and Cowan have skillfully introduced as cameo sequences.
The Ice Cream Witch is played by Katharine Precourt who, with mobile expressive face, clearly relishes the role. The Transformed Witch, played by Paul Mathews, is in full pantomime mode and takes hilarious advantage of the satirical strokes the choreography offers (including the tossing of a pair of pointe shoes into the cauldron, together with a large manny rat that proves inedible but will doubtless flavour/poison the stew). Mathews always inhabits rather than just portrays his roles and here he exaggerates wonderfully without ever wasting a gesture.
Thank goodness for curtain calls in character. The dancers have clearly had a rollicking good time in this production which will certainly entertain audiences in the forthcoming national tour.
An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.
The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.
Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, TheRagtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.
Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.
We should tell our
grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them
photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they
draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their
favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good
important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and
Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have
Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by
everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is
overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal
New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and
colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say
Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’
‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.
The sagas of
company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were
referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the
fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding
impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on
to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr
and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.
Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’
Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’
Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.
A friend in the audience commented later—’One
thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was
talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to
speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence
and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been
a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and
performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently
encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in
physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such
generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his
weight in gold.
There are more stories to be found in
Jon’s recently published memoir, Why
Dance?and details of the
Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the
RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.
Jon has also
explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary
gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and
wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his
own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout
a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs
during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but
never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience
in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and
truckloads of performance memories.
Also apparent is a
deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the
whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and
made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’
Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During
my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T.
perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a
wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of
love, ownership and appreciation.’
Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.
So what did Jonty
do? He joined in the applause of course.
Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019
Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019
Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link.[Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]
New Zealand School of Dance is one school with two discrete streams, Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Their Graduation season is always an uplifting affair as the fledgling dancers leave the nest where they have spent the past three years in intensive training. We can guess they’ll each be wishing for just one thing—life as a dancer. I can see no reason why they shouldn’t all get what they wish for, though over time that will, for some of them at least, stretch to include ‘teacher’ and ‘choreographer’ as well.
There are students from New Zealand, including Maori and Pasifika, and several countries beyond, Australia and Asia. The seeds of teacher training included in the curriculum here would help them find work for life back home if not here. We won’t be done with our life on Earth until everyone, in every country, has had a chance to dance, if only as a way to enhance recognition of choreographic masterpieces when they see them. There was such a masterpiece on each of the two programs and I’m shivering to tell you about them, as well as share a few thoughts about possible future directions.
The Ballet program, Tradition, opened with an excerpt of La Sylphide, from Bournonville heritage. Nadine Tyson (alumna of the School and a long-term dancer with RNZB), staged the work which was danced with care and love. The fact that Henning Albrechtsen, the world’s finest free-lance Bournonville teacher, had a residency at the School just last year, will have paid off in the students’ understanding of this demanding and darling style, renowned for its contained vigour and life-affirming ebullient spirit within ballet heritage. (A pity no program note could remind us that Poul Gnatt was for years the most renowned interpreter in the world of the leading role of James. His oral history includes a fabulous story about that, and relates to New Zealand).
It was Gnatt who first raised the voice to form a School to serve the needs of the Company he had already established in 1953. It would be 1967 before the National School of Ballet opened its doors. A paragraph to that effect could be included within the printed program, with further reference to its 50 year history recently written by Turid Revfeim (alumna of the School and long-term dancer with RNZB). History will not go away just by our staying quiet, and a background program essay is needed to pick up and weave back together the threads between School and Company that have recently, by neglect, been torn asunder.
It is deeply satisfying to sight a young dancer in the back row of the corps of La Sylphide who, as have others, used her time at the School to develop the technique and to hone the style that she simply did not have three years ago, but that she will now carry back to her Asian homeland and thus spread good in the world. She may not know that this sentence is about her, but I do. Well done all.
The following Tarantella, by Balanchine, 1964, a romp to Gottschalk music, gave a superb chance to a pair of young students to strut some marvellous stuff. There’s also a link across to Bournonville via the tambourine, but these days dancers with tambourines are so polite. If you’re going to dance with one, don’t you need to thrash hell out of it and rattle the discs to let everyone know that dancing with one is different from dancing without one?
Sfumato by Betsy Erikson (we need program notes to identify the choreographers) was an extended work, from 1986, to Boccherini, but that does not carry the vitality of the Baroque repertoire that preceded his era. The work is staged by Christine Gunn, long-term teacher at the School, and by Nadine Tyson. The dancers all do well, but the challenges of choreographic structure on this music remain. In past years there has been one work on the program done to live piano accompaniment (after all, the two best ballet pianists in town—Phillip O’Malley and Craig Newsome—are on the staff here) but this line-up did not offer that opportunity.
Then followed After the Rain, a pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, and the theatre fell silent. A man and a woman, dancing to Arvo Pärt’s music, Spiegel im Spiegel, for piano and violin (offering resonance back some years to alumna Raewyn Hill’s memorable choreography, Angels with Dirty Feet, to the same music). Every moment, every gesture, every position held and line followed, every lifting, sliding and lowering, shows choreographic mastery. They are not having sex, they are making love, in any generous understanding of those words you care to bring to reading them. It’s a triumph for a School anywhere to include Wheeldon’s work in its Graduation program. It was rehearsed by Qi Huan, premier dancer for years at RNZB, and the calibre of his work shines through the students’ performance.
Emerge, a solo for a male, by Australian choreographer Louise Deleur, was a world premiere. Also rehearsed by Qi Huan, it received a focused performance.
Christopher Hampson’s Saltarello, choreographed for RNZB in 2001, is a smart and sultry number and a fitting finale to this satisfyingly varied program. Here staged by Turid Revfeim, again a School alumna as well as long-term Company stalwart dancer, teacher, choreographer and administrator there, and now teacher at the School, it gives scope to a large cast who find the style and pizzaz to mix humour into its moves.
2018 marks 20 years since Garry Trinder became Director of the School and there can be no doubting his commitment to the wellbeing and developing careers of the students. Chair of the Board, Russell Bollard, spoke in tribute. The small print in the program reminds us that dancer and staff reps are included on the Board. Any decent workplace these days knows to represent the spectrum of its people among its governance. It’s a mark of confidence, high morale, respect, common sense and fair play. Top marks to this institution for that
On my recent visit to Brisbane to catch a performance of Greg Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty by Queensland Ballet, I was especially taken by the designs of Gary Harris. In particular, I loved his sets with their sweeping sense of space, which is clearly evident in the image below from the Queensland Ballet season.
I recall talking to Harris, over ten years ago now, while he was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet and I recently came across the text of the article based on that interview. I wrote it for ballet.co in the UK, where it was published online in May 2003. As my ballet.co articles are not presently available online due to a server change, and also because I only recently found the text of the ballet.co article, which I thought was lost, I am re-publishing it below.
‘Oh he’s wearing a shirt with Mambo written all over it today,’ the theatre usher tells me as I wait in the foyer of the Princess Theatre in Launceston, Tasmania. Gary Harris, artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, is running late (or has forgotten our appointment?). He arrives, Mambo clothes and all, full of apologies. It’s the final day of performances for the sixteen dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet who are on tour to Tasmania for the biennial festival, Ten Days on the Island. It’s just a short season, four performances in three days—3–5 April 2003. The rest of the company, another sixteen dancers, is touring back home in New Zealand. We find time for our interview over a meal between the late afternoon matinee and the evening show.
London-born Harris, a warm and engaging man, first visited New Zealand in 1996 as guest teacher for Royal New Zealand Ballet and kept returning over the next few years. In 2001 he was appointed artistic director of the company and is full of enthusiasm for his job and his dancers.
‘I loved the honesty I found amongst the New Zealand dancers,’ he explains. ‘They are so versatile too. They work beautifully with what they’ve got and respond to the space they’re in. I want the company to keep that honesty and to have a real understanding of the rules of classical ballet and of correctness of presentation.’
Watching his dancers in the repertoire they have brought to Tasmania—a mixed bill comprising four works—there is certainly a distinctive quality to the way they move. Dancing on the tiny stage of the Princess Theatre is not an enviable task. There’s not much space to fling oneself around and Harris’ staging of Paquita Variations, the opening work on the program, perhaps suffers most. The formal quality of its choreography, which Harris based on that of Petipa for the original Paquita of 1846, really needs a bigger stage to do it justice. But the delicious freedom that the dancers have in the upper body makes up for the feeling that things are a bit cramped. The sense of the body moving through rather than in space is also quite noticeable, as is the turn-out of the feet and legs. There is real teaching going on behind the scenes of this company.
‘I really like teaching,’ Harris says. ‘And I love getting together with the dancers for the process of rehearsing. The New Zealand dancers here are very responsive and I love getting an energetic atmosphere going.’
In addition to showing the classical strengths of the Royal New Zealand dancers, Paquita Variations shows up Harris’s talents as a designer. The costumes are his design, with the women’s tutus inspired, he says, by a Degas sculpture of which he is very fond. The softness of the skirts is beguiling. A blouse-like top and a corset-like bodice, which fits closely from the top of the rib cage to the hips, completes what is a beautifully old-fashioned costume. Harris says he loved to draw as a child and also mentions that his father made him a play theatre, complete with working lights. So his wide-ranging involvement in all aspects of getting a show on stage is something he accepts as a perfectly normal part of an artistic director’s life.
Harris’s international connections are clearly evident in the company’s repertoire, although he is quick to mention that nurturing New Zealand artists is part of his plan. Nevertheless in Launceston, along with Paquita Variations, the company danced two works by Mark Baldwin, Melting Moments and FrENZy, and one by Javier de Frutos, Milagros.
The de Frutos piece, a commissioned work and de Frutos’ first for Royal New Zealand Ballet is the surprise package. Milagros takes its name from the Spanish word used to describe both miracles and votive offerings, and the work is danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring recorded on a piano roll. Played on a pianola the music sounds distorted and lacks the orchestral colour that the ear expects. But the drama is still there, the rhythms are still frenetic and the new and unexpected sound sets the scene for a work that is far from ordinary. Both the men and women wear long white skirts that swirl and swing with the motion of the dancers. On top both sexes wear flimsy, white, straight-cut shirts with long, loose sleeves. On the back of each shirt, quite hard to see but definitely there, is a number. The costumes, designed by de Frutos, give a clue to the piece. There is uniformity yet diversity. There is calmness and purity yet an eddy within.
Choreographically de Frutos juxtaposes highly sculpted sequences—long lines of dancers, clear circular formations for example—with phrases that appear to be wildly individualistic. This dualism is accompanied by other sets of opposites. Some movements flow expressively, others look quite stilted. At times the dancers react with restraint to their colleagues; at other times they appear to be absolutely fired with passion. The light changes back and forth from a stark white to a soft gold. The work also has a few unusual phrases of movement that keep occurring and remain in the memory afterwards. There is a limping step. There is another where the dancers thrust the chest out, fling the head and one arm back and move purposefully forward by transferring the weight on and off one heel. And another where a woman in a deep plié in second position with hands on hips propels herself in a circle, again using the heels to give the momentum. Sometimes dancers make their exit by walking on their knees as if doing penance. It’s absolutely mesmersing choreography.
Milagros on the one hand discomposes the viewer. It never answers the questions that it seems to present. It suggests both vodoo activities as well as organised religion. But it is also an incredibly satisfying piece that speaks to the viewer on an intuitive level. There is something inevitable about the way it unfolds and something fulfilling about its unexpectedness.
The two Baldwin pieces look a little tame by comparison. While Melting Moments is a lyrical and seamless duet, a serious piece, first made for New Zealand’s Limbs Dance Company in 1980, its vocabulary seems dated, almost contrived, by comparison with the de Frutos work. FrENZy on the other hand is great fun. Danced to a selection of top of the pops songs from the band Split Enz, it was first performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2001. It has a contemporary edge that recalls, without appropriating, the vocabulary of William Forsythe. There’s lots of movement that’s upside down, off centre, racy. There’s lots of glamour, lots that’s out there and in your face. It’s a real crowd pleaser. How often does a contemporary ballet have an audience whistling and shouting with enjoyment at the end? Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room has that effect and so does Baldwin’s FrENZy.
Royal New Zealand Ballet has lots to offer, not the least of which is its own, unique repertoire. Its dancers are unpretentious, technically capable and move with a real freedom. It’s history is fascinating too. The company is fifty years old this year having been founded in 1953 by Poul Gnatt who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and was a principal with the Royal Danish Ballet. Gnatt is also fondly remembered in Australia as a principal with the Borovansky Ballet and as a teacher in the 1960s at the Australian Ballet School.
Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet is Royal New Zealand Ballet’s next work. It opens in Wellington on 6 June 2003. And the company has been invited to appear at Sadler’s Wells next year. Plans for a five week tour include visits to Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Next year Adrian Burnett, a New Zealander by birth who is currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet, will be making a work for the company. And Harris mutters about wanting a Nutcracker in there somewhere. He wants a repertoire that is solid but that also challenges and educates and he’s well on the way to having it.
Michelle Potter, 4 November 2015 (originally published in the May 2003 edition of ballet.co magazine)
Scottish Ballet’s triple bill of works by Martin Lawrance, William Forsythe and Hans van Manen was designed, according to artistic director Christopher Hampson, to show choreography across three generations. To my mind, however, the evening showed more that choreography sometimes looks dated and that for it to have a powerful effect it needs something more than extreme physicality.
The evening opened with Lawrance’s Run for it, performed to John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony. It was made originally for Dance GB, a program associated with the London Olympics, although I’m not sure whether Olympic references in Run for it were specific or merely general (as a result of the athletic performances by the dancers). This was my first encounter with the choreography of Lawrance and, while his ability to create energetic, highly physical movement was absolutely evident, I’m not sure he has yet established an individual choreographic voice that makes his brand of movement vocabulary distinctive. To me it seemed like a series of random movements lacking focus.
In many respects the Olympic references came through more clearly in the design. The set by recent Turner Prize winner Martin Boyce recalled ancient Greece, home of the Olympics. A Grecian-style, fluted column set slightly off centre-stage was topped by a conglomeration of geometric shapes spreading across the upper space a little like a cloud. Yumiko Takeshima’s close fitting costumes, looking like an outfit one might wear to the gym, emphasised the sleek and athletic bodies of the dancers.
Closing the program was Hans van Manen’s 1970s piece 5 tangos to music by Astor Piazzolla. This mixture of ballet and tango moves was well performed by the dancers of Scottish Ballet, who wore their red and black costumes with panache. The men in particular moved as an ensemble with admirable ease. Sadly, I don’t think the choreography gave the dancers the opportunity to move with the passion I associate with the tango, although they made the best of what they were given to dance. For me the piece showed how choreography has changed over the past 30 or so years. The carefully arranged moves and patterns of 5 tangos seemed overly structured and, with an emphasis on canon forms, repeats and so forth, the whole seemed too obvious and almost predictable.
The pièce de résistance was the middle work on the program, William Forsythe’s Workwithinwork set to Luciano Berio’s Duetti per due violini. While the off-kilter moves, extended limbs thrashing through the air, and the highly physical partnering we associate with Forsythe were all there, this work began with the dancers looking as though they were in comic mode. Repeatedly they looked almost as if they were poking fun at classical poses and in general fooling around. But by the close of the work, largely a series of duets and trios, all seemed to come together in a cohesive whole and, as the curtain came down, we were left with wisps of movement being traced in the air by the dancers to remind us of what had gone before. It was a mesmerising work with many levels of meaning. One viewing simply made me long to see it again.
Daniel Davidson and Luciana Ravizzi in William Forsythe’s Workwithinwork. Scottish Ballet, 2012. Photo: Andrew Ross
This program was my first encounter with the work of Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet. Not knowing any of the dancers, I am sorry not to be able to comment on individual performances. Christopher Hampson has been artistic director of Scottish Ballet for a very short time, since August 2012. His personable nature was evident in his onstage introduction to this program, which must have been that of previous director, Ashley Page. It will be interesting to see how Scottish Ballet develops under Hampson’s leadership. He has some excellent dancers to work with.
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.