Writing Dancing

The art of writing about dance has been on my mind for a while just recently—more so than usual that is. Several recent occurrences have sparked off my current bout of thinking. First, a colleague in New Zealand sent me an email in which she asked if I had read Zadie Smith’s article Dance lessons for writers, first published in The Guardian in 2016. I hadn’t read it, but it sounded interesting so I quickly got myself a copy. Then, Canberra-based dancer and writer, Emma Batchelor, gave a talk at the recent BOLD Festival in which she discussed the Smith article—one of those strange co-incidences that happen occasionally. Not long after, I read that Clement Crisp, renowned English dance writer and critic, had died.

The Zadie Smith article included six short analyses, or comparisons really, of the dancing styles of well-known figures, which Smith puts side by side: Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson/Prince, Rudolf Nureyev/Mikhail Baryshnikov and others. But it was Smith’s opening section that was the strongest element in the article. She based her opening comments around a remark addressed to dancers by Martha Graham:

There is a vitality, a life force, and energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Smith asked what an art of words could take from the art that needs none. She mentioned the ideas of position, attitude, rhythm and style. It’s a terrific quote by Graham and an interesting concept by Smith of writers learning from what dance offers. Problem is that Smith didn’t really pick up in her following comments/analyses the ideas she found apparent in Graham’s paragraph. At least she didn’t in my mind!

Then along came Emma Batchelor! In her paper, Batchelor posed slightly rearranged subtitles following on from Smith’s Dance lessons for writers. She discussed for example Writing lessons learned from dance and Writing lessons for dancers. Ultimately she wrote:

The dance work I most respond to has an intellectual rigour. The thought process behind movement, the development of an idea. An understanding of what you want to convey and how.

Legibility. How legible is an idea, a movement.
Experimentation and play. Testing.
Literality. Opening or closing down space for interpretation.
Striving for a sense of ease, making the complicated look effortless.

Batchelor then examined a particular work by choreographer Chloe Chignell, Poems and other emergencies, which Batchelor believed demonstrated some of the ideas set out in her talk. While watching Chignell’s work, Batchelor realised she wanted to write about it and concluded, ‘Could the movement exist without words? The words without the movement? They were entwined.’

It was a thrill to hear Batchelor speak on this topic and her comments made clear to me that, while Smith had a terrific opening paragraph or two, she didn’t really develop, as I mentioned earlier, the thoughts she had presented in the comments that followed.

As for Clement Crisp (1931-2022), his writing over many decades has been remarkable and his death is a major loss to the dance world. But I lost much of my admiration for his work when he began to use the offensive word ‘Eurotrash’ for works that did not appeal to him. (He was not the only critic to use the word, I hasten to add). I prefer to stand by the words of American writer Marcia Siegel. I reviewed a collection of her writing entitled Mirrors and Scrims and the quote below is from that review:

[She says], ‘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.’

There is much to think about, across many areas, as we who write about dance pursue our work.

The review of Mirrors and Scrims is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2022

Featured image (overwritten): Jareen Wee in Liz Lea’s The Point. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski

Dance diary. September 2020

  • Gray Veredon on choreography

I am pleased to be able to post some interesting material sent to me by New Zealand-born choreographer, Gray Veredon. He has just loaded the first of a series of video clips in which he talks about his aims and ideas for his choreographic output. He uses examples from his latest work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he mounted recently in Poland. See below.

  • Alan Brissenden (1932–2020)

The dance community is mourning the death of Dr Alan Brissenden, esteemed dance writer and outstanding academic from the University of Adelaide. Alan wrote about dance for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers from the 1950s onwards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Australian Dance Awards in 2013.

As I looked back through my posts for the times I have mentioned Alan on this site, it was almost always for his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance, 1945–1965. Since it was published in 2010, it has always been my go-to book about Australian dance for the period it covers. No gossip in it; just the story of what happened—honest, critical, carefully researched and authoritative information. Very refreshing. Find my review of the book, written in 2010 for The Canberra Times, at this link.

A moving obituary by Karen van Ulzen for Dance Australia, to which Alan was a long-term contributor, is at this link.

  • Jack Riley

It was interesting to see that Marcus Wills’ painting Requiem (JR) was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Archibald Prize. While Wills states that the painting is not meant to be ‘biographical’, the (JR) of the title stands for dancer Jack Riley. Riley began his performing career as a Quantum Leaper with Canberra’s youth group, QL2 Dance. After tertiary studies he has gone on to work with a range of companies including Chunky Move, Australian Dance Party, and Tasdance.

See the tag Jack Riley for more writing about him and his work on this site.

  • Jake Silvestro

The first live performance in a theatre I have been to since March took place in September at the newly constructed black box theatre space at Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra. It was a circus-style production called L’entreprise du risque. It featured Frenchman Bernard Bru and Australian Circus Oz performer Jake Silvestro, along with two young performers who trained at Canberra’s Warehouse Circus, Imogen Drury and Clare Pengryffyn.

While the show was somewhat uneven in standard, the standout performer was Jake Silvestro, whose acts on the Cyr wheel showed incredible balance and skill in general.

But whatever the standard, it was a thrill to be back watching live theatre again.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

In Wellington, New Zealand, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer is being sold through Unity Books, which presented the publication as its spotlight feature for its September newsletter. Follow this link. It includes Sir Jon Trimmer’s heartfelt impressions of the book, which I included in the August dance diary.

An extensive review by Dr Ian Lochhead, Christchurch-based art and dance historian, appeared in September on New Zealand’s Theatreview. Apart from his comments on the book itself, Dr Lochhead took the opportunity to comment on the importance of archiving our dance history. Read the full review at this link.

Royal New Zealand Ballet also featured the book in its September e-newsletter. See this link and scroll down to READ.

Back in Australia, Judy Leech’s review appeared in the newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. Again this is an extensive review. Read it at this link.

  • Press for September

‘Capital company.’ A story on Canberra’s professional dance company, Australian Dance Party. Dance Australia, September-November 2020, pp. 31-32.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2020

Featured image: Giovanni Rafael Chavez Madrid as Oberon and Mayu Takata as Titania in Gray Veredon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Globalisation or culturalism. Is ballet at the crossroads?

In December 2002 I wrote an article, at the request of Bruce Marriott, for ballet.co magazine (now no longer available) to coincide, if I remember correctly, with a conference of artistic directors held in the United Kingdom somewhere (perhaps London?). I think the commission came because David McAllister, then quite new in the role of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, was attending. As with many of my other articles and reviews for ballet.co, I thought it had disappeared from my computer files and I had not made a print out. But just recently it appeared when I was searching with the term ‘Nutcracker’ for another thought-to-be lost file. So I am posting it here and welcome comments from a 2018 perspective.

As artistic directors of some of the world’s best-known ballet companies meet to discuss the issue of globalisation, I am reminded of a now well-known debate that emerged in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s. It concerned the nature of the country’s cultural development. Two camps sprang up: one centred on the idea of the tyranny of distance, the other on the notion that from the deserts the prophets come. Those who spoke for the tyranny of distance believed that Australia was a cultural desert isolated from the great centres of civilisation, especially from the so-called mother country of Great Britain. Those on the other side believed that Australians did not need to rely on their colonists for what they required to nourish their souls—in the midst of their isolation they could have their own uniquely beautiful culture that could define them, equally uniquely, as Australian. This group took as a catch cry some lines from a poem written by renowned Australian poet A. D. Hope in 1960:

Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste.

The debate is historically interesting, and the discussion generated two of the best-known period books on Australian culture and identity: Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance and Geoffrey Serle’s From the Deserts the Prophets Come (later, in an attempt to popularise, or globalise perhaps, the Serle book was renamed The Creative Spirit in Australia).

Advances in technology of various kinds have, of course, made the idea of the tyranny of distance pretty much an obsolete concept. Globalisation, however, is clearly with us: it is  part of the fabric of our contemporary existence. It has permeated every aspect of the way we live and operate in the twenty-first century. And while many of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere may still think of Australia as out of scope, few Australians (thankfully) now believe that distance hampers their ability to interact with the rest of the world. So where does this leave the individualism that we rightly prize so highly? What do we do with the savage and scarlet that has so flamboyantly grown? Or even with the green hills if we are on the other side of the world? Do we sit back and allow globalisation to turn what is unique about our individual dance cultures into something bland and universal? Or do we embrace culturalism, accepting that, while communications may have changed the way we operate in the world, our individual cultures cannot develop in a similar way? Do we sit in our theatres from London to Sydney, from New York to Melbourne, all seeing the same works: a Giselle respectfully produced, Manon, a couple of items from Balanchine, The Merry Widow and so on.  Or do we each go for something culturally specific (a Murphy Nutcracker, an Ashton work from the early repertoire), and for individualistic reworkings of the tried and true (a Guillem Giselle, a Murphy Swan Lake)? Is one way the only way? The right way? The wrong way?

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Neither bowing to globalisation nor strictly adhering to culturalism is the answer. Culturalism smacks of attitudes of superiority and cultural elitism—my culture is better than yours. It closes the mind to innovation and change. It indulges in smugness and name calling (the vile expression ‘Eurotrash’, beloved by one particular British critic, springs immediately to mind). It is a stultifying attitude. On the other hand, globalisation removes what we value about ourselves as individuals in unique cultures, what our specific histories have created and asked us to cherish. But defiantly, ballet is perfectly able to accommodate itself within a global society without losing anything. Ballet isn’t dying. It isn’t even at the crossroads as it encounters globalisation. Ballet is like a sponge. It can soak up change: it has been doing so for centuries. It can absorb new vocabulary. It can keep renewing itself from what it absorbs. It has to be able to operate in this way because it is a living, breathing art form. Even the most superficial glance at photographs of acclaimed dancers in the same role taken over several decades, in Giselle for example, makes it very clear that while we may want Giselle to stay the same—the past is very comforting—it can’t and hasn’t and won’t. In fifty years time dancers won’t want to dance Giselle like Alina Cojocaru (hard as that idea may be to comprehend at the moment).

In the twenty-first century the ballet-going public is entitled to green hills sprinkled liberally with some savage and scarlet (and I mean this more widely, more figuratively, than simply British works sprinkled with Australian ones). Dancers are, for their growth as artists, entitled to experience the work of choreographers outside their immediate, culturally-specific environment. Choreographers are entitled to wonder (and experience) how their works might look when danced by dancers trained outside the choreographer’s home country: the great ones do (and have) and are open and generous about the experience, as any dancer from the Australian Ballet who has worked with Jiří Kylián on any work from the Australian Ballet’s Kylián repertoire will tell you. Critics need to open-minded enough to embrace change and innovation while caring about the past. And artistic directors need to understand it all! The artistic director of a truly great company needs courage, intelligence and drive. Courage not to be swayed from his or her vision. Intelligence to have a vision that looks both forward and in a lateral direction and, going hand-in-hand, intelligence to understand that looking in this manner and direction is not a denial of the past. Drive to put the vision into practice.

Globalisation is a much-maligned concept. It doesn’t have to exclude anything really. But to react to globalisation uncritically, and to allow it to dictate to us is the problem. To do this is to lack courage, intelligence and drive. That we can see new works and restagings of old ones from London to Sydney, New York to Melbourne is a gift of globalisation. If we wish to deny that gift by insisting on culturalism it is a measure of an inability to exist in a global culture, in today’s culture, and a pitifully conservative attitude. But one thing is certain, whatever the response of individual people ballet will keep moving forward. It will never fall victim to a narrow culturalism. Only people will do that. Let’s hope that the new breed of artistic directors understands.

Michelle Potter, December 2002, reposted 14 June 2018

Featured image: Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Dance diary. January 2015

  • Jennifer Shennan

I am thrilled to welcome Jennifer Shennan as a contributor to this website. Based in Wellington, New Zealand, Jennifer is a renowned dance writer whose major publications include A Time to Dance: the Royal New Zealand Ballet at 50 (Wellington: RNZB, 2003) and The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013), which she edited with Anne Rowse. Jennifer teaches dance history and anthropology and has a particular research interest in the Pacific. Her own teachers were Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr. Now that is a proud heritage!

Jennifer’s first contribution was her tribute to Harry Haythorne and I look forward to publishing more of her writing as 2015 proceeds.

  • ‘Pulse: reflections on the body’

The Canberra Museum and Art Gallery has been running a show since October 2014 called ‘Pulse: reflections on the body’. The exhibition has on display items by a range of artists working across several media. Amongst a collection of works on paper and canvas and some sculpture, two dance items are included—Australian Dance Theatre’s 15 minute video of Garry Stewart’s Proximity, and James Batchelor’s video, Ersatz. Batchelor has also been giving some live performances during the run of the show. As seen in the image below, his performance takes place on the highly polished floor in front of his video installation and, as with all his work that I have seen, it is meticulous in its fine detail and in its interest in the stillness that surrounds movement.

James Batchelor performs in 'Pulse', CMAG 2015

(The hand-blown glass objects in the foreground of the image are from a work by Nell)

Pulse logo
  • Arthur Murch and the Ballets Russes

I was pleased to be contacted during January by the daughter of Australian artist Arthur Murch, who told me that her father had travelled to Australia from Italy on board the Romolo with some of the dancers coming to Australia for the 1939–1940 Ballets Russes tour. I was curious because I had been under the impression that the dancers had come from London on board the Orcades, with another group arriving from the West Coast of the United States on board the Mariposa. The two groups met in Sydney and gave their opening performance at the Theatre Royal on 30 December 1939.

It seems, however, that there were a few Ballets Russes personnel who did indeed travel on the Romolo from Genoa. They included Olga Philipoff, daughter of Alexander Philipoff, de Basil’s executive assistant; Marie (Maria) Philipoff, mother of Olga; and dancer Nicolas Ivangine. The Romolo was the last boat to leave Italy before Italy joined the war and Murch was returning to Australia after spending time in various parts of Europe. The Romolo and its passengers have, it seems, escaped the attention of Australian Ballets Russes scholars so far, as has Murch’s connections with the company. To date I have seen a photograph of a beautiful head sculpture Murch made of Mme Philipoff, and a photo of Olga Philipoff and Ivangine on the deck of the ship. I look forward to reporting further on this discovery at a later date.

  • Dance and criticism

The newest issue of Dance Australia (February/March 2015) includes its annual survey by critics from across Australia, although this year Karen van Ulzen has expanded the space given to the survey so that critics are able to give fuller accounts of their choices. It makes the survey more than simply a list and gives a touch of analysis, an essential element in good dance writing. The new look is a welcome initiative that I hope continues. It is always interesting, too, to see how varied the choices are.

  • Press for January 2015 (Update May 2019: Online links to articles published prior to mid 2015 in The Canberra Times are no longer available)

‘Vibrant, expressive show.’ Review Dancing for the gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, The Canberra Times, 19 January 2015, ARTS p. 6.

‘In the WRIGHT frame of mind.’ Profile of Sam Young-Wright of Sydney Dance Company, The Canberra Times, ‘Panorama’, 24 January 2015, pp. 10–11.

‘A classic in its own right.’ Preview of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, The Canberra Times. ‘Panorama’, 31 January 2015, p. 18.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2015

Anna Karenina. Eifman Ballet

15 August 2012, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

There is a lot to admire in Boris Eifman’s balletic interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina. It is definitely not that Eifman covers all the complexities of the plot in his narrative but that, having chosen to reduce the storyline to a love triangle between the influential statesman Alexey Karenin (Oleg Markov); Anna (Nina Zmievets), his wife; and Alexey Vronsky (Oleg Gabyshev), cavalry officer and Anna’s lover; he presents a theatrically powerful distillation of the emotional heart of the novel.

Eifman emphasises individual incidents and single moments in the narrative and this approach is supported by a lighting design from Gleb Filshnitsky who uses strong spotlighting to direct the audience’s focus. I admired the quite minimal designs of the costumes by Slava Okunev with their reduced colour palette, largely of slate grey, black and white, and the multi-functioning black and gold setting by Zinovy Margolin with its architectural and historical allusions. They also supported Eifman’s vision. Alongside the three principals in this production, the corps de ballet becomes a kind of chorus filling roles as socialites, visitors to Venice, and eventually as the train that kills Anna.

Nina Zmievets and Oleg Markov in a scene from Anna Karenina, Eifman Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Cynthia Sciberras

Eifman’s choreography is an odd mixture of classical and contemporary movement. There is the temptation to think of Martha Graham, perhaps even Nacho Duato at times, and also musical comedy routines. But it is more a case of it being Eifman’s own brand of eccentric movement where bodies are twisted and contorted and thrown around dramatically. I am not particularly a fan of Eifman’s ‘flash-bang’ choreographic style, although the dancers clearly relished what they were dancing and that in itself is something to admire. For a while I didn’t notice that the women were on pointe, so focused was the choreography on flinging the body from one extraordinary shape and position to another. But once I started looking more closely I disliked the way the women used (or didn’t use) their feet. Pointe shoes look ghastly if the foot isn’t working strongly inside them and often it wasn’t, which totally destroyed the line of the leg in my opinion.

Scene from Anna Karenina, Eifman Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Cynthia Sciberras

What I really didn’t like was the Tchaikovsky mash-up to which the work was set musically. In particular, there were some musical selections that are so closely identified with other ballets as to detract from what Eifman was trying to achieve. The scene in Venice where Anna and Vronsky have fled, for example, was danced to music that is used for that wonderful Polonaise in the finale of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. No matter how elegant those black and gold Venetian carnival costumes were, it was all but impossible not to wish one was seeing Theme and Variations instead of Anna Karenina. Similarly, the ballet opened with the music that opens Balanchine’s Serenade, and again it is hard to not visualise that ballet rather than watch what is unfolding on stage in Anna Karenina.

I think it’s worth looking at Judith Flanders’ summation of Eifman Ballet as posted on theartsdesk.com not so long ago. She wrote, ‘Boris Eifman has always divided the critics. Western audiences tend to respond the way they do to car crashes: they are appalled, but find it hard to look away. Russians, meanwhile, virtually stand on their seats and scream for more.’ There is also an interesting comment posted at the end of the Flanders’ piece!

I wasn’t appalled, there was too much to think about and plenty to admire, but to my eyes Eifman’s way of presenting ballet is definitely eccentric. Having said that, perhaps we need a few more eccentricities here in Australia?

Michelle Potter, 17 August 2012

Dance diary. June 2012

  • Lucy and the lost boy: NICA

In mid-June I attended a performance by graduating students of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne. Their show, Lucy and the lost boy, was devised and directed by Sally Richardson and I was pleased to see the two NICA students I had interviewed for the Heath Ledger Project, Josie Wardrope and Simon Reynolds, taking major roles in the show. In fact the ‘Lucy’ of the show’s title was Josie Wardrope. Wardrope’s performance on flying trapeze in the closing scene was thrilling, while the variety of skills at which Simon Reynolds excels is remarkable.

It was, in addition, a pleasure to see other talented students from the graduating year in the show. I especially enjoyed the performance of Skip Walker-Milne, who took the role of the Lost Boy. He was a strong performer and I hope to follow his career in the future. But from a dance perspective I got particular pleasure from a vignette by three clowns, Jamie Bretman, Jack Coleman and Simon Wright, who were named in the show as  ‘The Clown Kings’.  While they had a role throughout the show, including amusing the people standing in the queue to get into the auditorium, I especially loved a sequence in which they performed to the ‘Little Swans’ music from Swan Lake.

‘The Clown Kings’ from Lucy and the lost boy, 2012. Photo: © David Wyatt. Courtesy NICA

Meredith Kitchen was named as choreographer for the show, so I assume their performance was her doing. I have long been fascinated by the place the ‘Little Swans’ dance has beyond the strict confines of a classical production of Swan Lake. These Clown Kings, with their roller bins, their deliciously clumsy coupé steps, and their innocent expressions, gave me huge pleasure.

  • Reviews from The Canberra Times

In June my reviews of The Nutcracker on Ice: the Imperial Ice Stars and Sydney Dance Company’s The Land of Yes & The Land of No were published by The Canberra Times.

I continue to be impressed by Rafael Bonachela’s choreography and the remarkable performances the dancers of Sydney Dance Company give.

  • Oral history: James Mollison, AO

Also in June I also had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with James Mollison, whose many achievements include his role as inaugural director of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Mollison was also responsible for acquiring the major portion of the Diaghilev costume collection, of which the Gallery is the envied owner. ‘Why does Canberra have those costumes?’ I have often been asked by people in the northern hemisphere. My reply has always been, ‘It’s because Canberra had a forward-thinking inaugural director of the National Gallery.’ The collection has formed the basis of three exhibitions by the National Gallery of Australia, most recently in 2010-2011.

  • The Australian Ballet in New York

The question of the New York reviews for the Australian Ballet’s recent visit to Manhattan has been discussed briefly amid comments on the Romeo and Juliet post on this site. Another review that I found especially interesting came from Ryan Wenzel on his website ‘Bodies never lie’. Wenzel appears to have reviewed only the mixed bill, at least at this stage, but his comments on repertoire are worth considering. He writes, for example: ‘The choreography too rarely stretched the mind, entertained, or provided innovative commentary on ballet as an art form’.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2012

Crisp, Cunningham, Choreography

I have commented elsewhere on this site and in The Canberra Times on the legacy tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, now drawing to an end. The tour has generated all kinds of reviews over the almost two years of its run to date, not the least of which is a recent one by Clement Crisp published in The Financial Times of 6 October 2011, which relates to a Cunningham season at the Barbican in London. I love reading Crisp’s reviews, which are often outrageously opinionated (in my opinion!!), but which often also contain many words of wisdom born of many years of experience.

Given that choreography has been a point of discussion among readers of and contributors to this website recently, the following extract from Crisp’s Cunningham review is more than interesting.

‘The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, as the choreographer left it when he died two years ago, will cease to exist at the year’s end. Cunningham’s wish that his troupe should cease must be seen as wise. The keepers of the flame who proclaim that “this is what our Dear Master intended” are among the added indignities to mortality.

Choreography mutates, Chinese-whispers fashion and for all the stern guardianship that seeks to protect dance, it alters, as do bodies and training and the social attitudes of an audience. Today’s Ashton, even today’s carefully guarded Balanchine, change as transmission of a text oh-so-insidiously erodes a step, an emotional point. Cunningham decided his company—dancers with whom he worked on a daily basis—must end ‘as near as dammit with him’.

Michelle Potter, 12 October 2011

Balletgoers love Giselle

As Jack Anderson says in a recently published article, balletgoers love Giselle. It has been some time since I have seen this classic of the Romantic repertoire performed live, which I regret. Still very clear in my mind is the Finnish National Ballet’s production of Sylvie Guillem’s staging, which while not the most recent I have seen—it goes back to the 1990s—for me is easily the most intelligent and most moving production I have had the good fortune to see. I still recall, however, Clement Crisp’s remark in a review in London’s Financial Times that this staging was ‘ultimately wilful as a view of an old text.’

Anderson’s article in New York Theatre Wire concerns a recent production of Giselle by Pacific Northwest Ballet under the direction of Peter Boal, and is also a comment on the recent meeting in Seattle of the Dance Critics’ Association. Although I will never be convinced that there is not also a place for those ‘wilful’ productions like that of Guillem, the Anderson article is a terrific piece of writing offering many insights into what is a remarkable ballet.

Read the article at this link

Michelle Potter, 2 July 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

Interview with Alastair Macaulay by Alan Helms

For those who may not have read the interview by Alan Helms with dance critic Alastair Macaulay, published recently in the summer issue of the ballet.co magazine, I recommend it. It is quite long but a totally fascinating read.

One of the highlights of my tenure as curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division in New York was the launch of the restored film of George Balanchine’s Don Quixote featuring that amazing ballerina Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea and Balanchine himself as the Don. Macaulay was invited to speak at the launch. I was familiar with Macaulay’s writing but not with his public speaking style. However, shortly before the launch I heard him honour dance scholar David Vaughan at a forum presented by the Dance Critics’ Association. As one might expect, Macaulay gave an incredibly knowledgeable account of Vaughan’s vast contribution to dance. But it was not simply knowledgeable, it was brilliantly entertaining as well. So he seemed the ideal choice for the Don Q launch. Luckily he accepted.

What he gave us at the launch was an overview of Farrell’s career complete with demonstrations of her technical prowess! It too was brilliantly entertaining and my clearest memory is of Macaulay constantly moving away from the lectern so we could see him quite clearly as he demonstrated this or that step. Of course the words were there too and the combination of his erudition and his willingness to engage with the physicality of dance — despite not being a dancer by training himself — was dazzling. So I was more than interested to read his thoughts in the Alan Helms interview on why he likes to demonstrate in this way, and to notice the emphasis he places throughout the interview on the concept of physicality.

Another aspect of the interview that I personally found inspiring was Macaulay’s brief discussion of finding that what he was writing as a young critic was controversial, and of being on one occasion struck off a press list. Having myself been ‘counselled’ against writing on a certain subject for this (my own) website, and having once been the source of a defamation case as a result of a review I wrote for a newspaper (the claim was unsuccessful), it is always helpful to be reminded, even as an ‘old’ critic as I am, that one needs to be resolute in one’s beliefs.

There are so many other moments in this interview that sparkle with Macaulay’s particular brand of perceptive thought. Definitely worth a read and a bouquet to Bruce Marriott of  ballet.co for publishing it.

[Update 30 November 2017: Sadly, the link to Alan Helms’ interview is no longer available]

Michelle Potter, 6 September 2010