Swan Lake. Artists of the Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet (on film)

Friday 20 March 2020 (the day I began writing this) was the date I was to be sitting in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, watching Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake. Instead, with the world closing down as a result of COVID-19, I am sitting at home in Canberra having just watched a DVD of a 2018 performance of that production. Luckily I bought the DVD last time I was in London. I hadn’t had the chance to watch it until now. Here, then, are my thoughts.

Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake is heart-stopping. I don’t think I can honestly say that of any other Swan Lakes I have watched over many decades of dance going. The main dancers—Marianela Nuñez as Odette/Odile, Vadim Muntagirov as Siegfried and Bennet Gartside as von Rothbart—not only dance with technical brilliance but project the underlying emotions of love, longing, loss, power and deception. Emotion pours out of every movement, every glance, every gesture. Powerfully.

Scarlett has made some choreographic changes, although they are not major. The production notes acknowledge Petipa, Ivanov, and Ashton as well as Scarlett. But some small non-choreographic changes that Scarlett has introduced make the storyline so much clearer. Many parts of the narrative we know just because we have read something, somewhere. But Scarlett explains things. He has an intellect and he transfers that intellect into the production, and hence to us. We are involved to a greater extent.

In Act I it is Prince Siegfried’s birthday and there is celebratory dancing. His mother the Queen (Elizabeth McGorian), acting a little sternly, suggests it is time for him to marry. But Siegfried decides to go out into the forest to shoot the swans he sees flying overhead. We know it all. We’ve seen it before. But are we ever really shown with clarity that it is Siegfried’s birthday? Or are we simply told that in the synopsis? In the Scarlett production, Siegfried’s friend Benno (Alexander Campbell) gives Siegfried a present, a golden goblet. And so begins the celebratory dancing, everyone with a goblet in hand for several moments. The Queen, when she arrives, also has a present for her son. It is a cross-bow, a family heirloom, and we know that Siegfried will use it in the next act.

It was also a change to see the introduction of an invitation, a paper prop clearly marked ‘Invitation’, to an event that would be held in the palace at which Siegfried would choose a marriage partner. It was shown to Siegfried by the Queen and his reaction paved the way for his anxiety, and ultimately to his going into the forest with his cross-bow.

But who was that mysterious rather supercilious man dressed in black who acted as some kind of adviser to the Queen? He seemed to be getting in the way a little and forbidding various things. Did he have the right? Well there was bit of dramatic irony introduced at this point. When, as Act I comes to a close, Siegfried goes against the wishes of the man in black and refuses to go inside, setting off instead with his cross-bow, the man in black drags himself upstage where he collapses as if shot. Is he von Rothbart in disguise? Has he been defeated in an attempt to keep Siegfried out of the forest where he might meet Odette? Or is this more a juxtaposition of innocence versus deviousness, good versus evil, with the Queen in the middle? Does it perhaps foretell von Rothbart’s end? It is simply exciting to ponder.

As the work transitions to Act II, the lakeside scenes (designs by John Macfarlane) are full of foreboding. A rocky outcrop and a bright moon dominate, although the lighting is quite dark. But then it is night time.

Marianela Nuñez as Odette in Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, 2018. © ROH. Photo: Bill Cooper

Throughout Act II there is the usual structure, perhaps with a little more mime than is apparent in many other productions. But what is transcendent is that Muntagirov shows us how he feels, anxious at times but full of longing for Odette. Nuñez shows her own anxiety, and perhaps fear. Should she engage with this man who appears to love her? Her technique, that beautiful line and her ability to unfold each movement slowly, is also a highlight.

We also meet von Rothbart as von Rothbart rather than the man in black of Act I. Macfarlane has given him a long feathery coat, reflecting the owl-like character of many productions, and has added a touch of red to part of his body costume: he is ‘red beard’ after all. Gartside gives a powerful performance with dominance as a major characteristic.

The work is set in Victorian times, clearly shown by the costume worn by the Queen in each of the acts in which she appears. But when Act III opens we see a kind of Baroque splendour. The sweeping staircase, extravagant floor lamps and the throne on which the Queen sits to watch proceedings all are reminiscent of European Baroque buildings.

Again Act III proceeds as one might expect, although the national dances have a real freshness to them and are beautifully (and I suspect expensively) costumed.

Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Siegfried in Act III of Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Alice Pennefather/ROH

But once again Muntagirov stands out for the way in which he carries the story forward. From the longing and anxiety of Act II he is now thrilled at having found his lost love, or so he believes.

The coda from the Act III pas de deux is simply stunning. Marianela Nuñez’s fouettés, starting with a triple and sprinkled throughout with doubles and another triple, are remarkable, as are Muntagirov’s double tours finishing in arabesque. And there he is smiling all the while. Watch below.

In Act IV the lakeside scenic elements are clearer although the moon has disappeared somewhat. I guess dawn is approaching? The final pas de deux is heart-wrenching and I won’t introduce a spoiler and give away the deeply moving ending. Buy the DVD. It is worth every dollar and terrific watching, especially when everything live is currently cancelled.

As far as the DVD goes, it is interesting, too, to see Scarlett taking a curtain call with the company in this 2018 presentation. Everyone onstage looks and acts as though they have huge admiration for his work and for him. There is also an ‘extra’ on the DVD showing Scarlett and Macfarlane discussing their vision for the production. It is heart-breaking that Scarlett’s career, so remarkable to date, may be cut short by events currently being examined.

Here is a link to posts on this website about the works from Scarlett that Jennifer Shennan and I have seen and written about.

And as a final comment, of course I wish I had been able to see the work live. But …

Michelle Potter, 21 March 2020

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Liam Sarlett’s Swan Lake. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Swan Lake. Artists of the Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

The White Crow. A film from Ralph Fiennes

I remember how much I enjoyed reading Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Rudolf Nureyev—Nureyev. The Life published in 2007. It was so beautifully researched and very readable. So the recently released ‘biopic’ The White Crow, which was inspired by Kavanagh’s book, had something to live up to for me. Well, despite a swag of less that ecstatic reviews from film critics around the world, I loved this movie. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, it follows the early life of Rudolf Nureyev, from his birth until his defection to the West in 1961.

As this is a dance site I am assuming that readers are aware of the basic outline of Nureyev’s early life so I won’t recount the story. Instead I am selecting moments, some that brought me close to tears, some that made me smile, and some that, despite knowing what was going to happen, had me the edge of my seat. And others.

I was moved when Nureyev’s mother, Farida, was about to give birth on the train rattling its way through the Russian countryside. Her daughters stood in the corridor, shielded from the birth but hearing the groans and shrieks coming from their mother. The smallest of the daughters had tears in her eyes— such a beautiful moment from such a little girl. It brought me close to tears.

Another moment connected with Farida also moved me. Nureyev, sitting alone in the office of the French Police Department at Le Bourget Airport, had to decide which door to take to leave the office. Would he leave via the back door and choose freedom, or would he leave through the main door, back into the hands of the Soviet representatives? They had told him, amongst other things, that he would never see his mother again if he chose freedom. We knew, of course, which door he would choose, but nevertheless, the tension throughout the airport scenes was gripping. As we sat there waiting for him to make his decision, however, the filmed location changed. We were transported back to Ufa, where Nureyev grew up and where he took his first dance lessons. In this flashback the young Nureyev entered the Ufa studio and his teacher asked his mother to leave. The young Nureyev began to dance a folk dance—it was performed so well by a little boy playing Nureyev aged eight or so. But as Farida disappeared down the corridor we knew that the choice had been made way back there in Ufa.

The scene in the dance studio was not the only time the film flashed back to Nureyev’s earlier life. I found these flashbacks, which were in black and white rather than the colour of the main footage, quite mesmerising. They were evocative and developed the storyline in an inspired way.

In the movie I really enjoyed meeting Clara Saint played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. As the woman who befriended Nureyev and then was instrumental in facilitating his defection, she has always seemed a mysterious character. She was somewhat mysterious, or perhaps reserved in personality, in this movie too but it was interesting to have a three dimensional reading of her.

Fiennes, the director, played Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s main teacher at the Kirov school and the man who, with his wife, accommodated Nureyev in their St Petersburg apartment during a momentous time in his early dancing life in St Petersburg. Fiennes’ portrayal was restrained and it was hard to know what he really thought of any situation in which he found himself. I had to wonder why he didn’t react a little more strongly to his wife’s sexual relationship with Nureyev, which was made very clear to us. But then maybe the real Pushkin didn’t mind?

Oleg Ivenko, a dancer himself, played the grown up Nureyev and we saw some respectable dancing from him. I couldn’t help but think, however, that his dancing owed a lot to Nureyev whose approach, all those years ago now, to turns, jumps, manèges and the like changed the look of male dancing forever. Having said that, it was interesting to see Nureyev himself in the credits (in dancing footage that had been reduced to minuscule size) and to realise that his technique was really quite raw in many ways.

And the moment that made me smile? After negotiating his way through the crowd at Le Bourget, not to mention managing the ongoing harassment of the Soviet representatives, Nureyev finally reached the office of the Police Department. ‘Do you have a cognac?’, he asked. And of course, being French, they did.

A film well worth seeing!

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2019

My most recent writing on Nureyev was for the printed program for the 2018 visit to Brisbane by Teatro all Scala from Milan. Here is a link to that article.

From the poster image for 'La danseuse'.

Dance diary. April 2017

  • La danseuse. French Film Festival 2017

The publicity for La danseuse, which was shown around Australia during March and April as part of the 2017 Alliance française French Film Festival, assures us that the film is ‘based on a true story’, or sometimes ‘inspired by a true story’, about the now ‘largely forgotten’ Loïe Fuller. Well, it depends what part of the population is being referred to as to whether Fuller is ‘largely forgotten’ or not, and ‘based on a true story’ is something of an overstatement I think. The events in the film are fictional from so many points of view that it is hard to justify the description of it as a screen biography.

The best sections of the film are those in which we see the recreations, staged by Jody Sperling, of Fuller’s dances. They look spectacular, given the contemporary equipment and facilities that are available and used in these restagings. Of course in Fuller’s time, without the benefits of today’s technical expertise and equipment, her dances would not have looked quite as spectacular, but on the other hand, with what was available in the late 19th/early 20th century, expectations would have been different and it is not hard to see that Fuller was a visionary and an astonishing artist for her time.

I was also impressed with the performance throughout of Soko, the independent actor, singer-songwriter who took the part of Fuller. She created a believable character, I thought, unlike Lily-Rose Depp who gave a somewhat shallow interpretation of Isadora Duncan, Fuller’s rival at the time.

Fuller’s own version of her life story is available (with some restrictions in certain cases) in an online version. Details at this link.

  • Homage to Carla Fracci. Daniel Schinasi

I was surprised to find, while strolling through the lovely little Italian town of Castiglioncello, an advertisement for an exhibition of paintings by Italian neo-futurist artist Daniel Schinasi, which included a painting called Homage to Carla Fracci (see below). We were very close to the venue advertised, a cafe in a nearby park, but the cafe was closed, seemingly in the throes of a small renovation. The manager, however, kindly let us in to look at the paintings.

Homage to Carla Fracci by Daniel Schinasi

Three of the paintings in the cafe were dance-related and, in addition to the Carla Fracci work with its swirling, circular patterns in the background, I was especially intrigued by one that seemed to by inspired, at least in part, by Picasso’s front-cloth for the ballet Parade, although who is it character sitting on the winged horse?

A very interesting small show of work.

  • Australian Dance Awards

The long list of nominations for the 2017 Australian Dance Awards includes four groups/artists from the Canberra dance scene. Philip Piggin has been nominated for Services to Dance; Australian Dance Party for Outstanding Achievement in Independent Dance for Nervous; QL2 for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Dance for Connected, and Liz Lea and collaborators for Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance for Great Sport!  Congratulations to all, and good luck for the next round, which will produce the short list.

Dancers from the GOLD group in a scene from Great Sport! Photo: Michelle Potter, 2016

The complete long list is at this link

Michelle Potter, 29 April 2017

Featured image: Soko as Loïe Fuller in La danseuse. From the poster advertisement for the film.

From the poster image for 'La danseuse'.

The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. Paul Cox’s ‘cinematic poem’.

The death earlier in June of film maker Paul Cox sent me in search of a DVD copy of his film The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The backstory is that Cox heard actor Paul Schofield on British radio reading from Nijinsky’s diaries (cahiers), which were first released in 1936 after having been rearranged and edited dramatically by Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.From that moment Cox was smitten and wanted to make a film based on the diaries. The making was a drawn-out experience (it took three years),2 but the film was eventually completed in 2001 and released in 2002. Cox has referred to it as a ‘cinematic poem’: it is certainly far from a documentary in the commonly understood meaning of the term.

Nijinsky began writing down his thoughts as a kind of diary on the morning of his last public performance, which he gave at the Suvretta Hotel in St Moritz on 19 January 1919. He wrote his last entry on 4 March that same year, the day he was to go to Zurich to see the psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, who would decide that he was suffering from incurable schizophrenia and who would advise, among other things, that he be admitted to a sanatorium. There are three exercise books of writing and drawing, with the first two books containing sections of Nijinsky’s own form of dance notation. The fourth notebook contains several letters to family, friends and others. The three diary books are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The fourth book of letters is held in Paris by the Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale.

I found Cox’s film (which I must admit I had never seen before) absolutely mesmerising. It is in many respects a collage of images that flash past us, some of which return hauntingly throughout the film. Sometimes they are photographs of Nijinsky in his well-known roles for the Ballets Russes, such as the image at the top if this post, which shows Nijinsky as Petrushka. Sometimes they are images from nature, with flowing water and birds, in particular a crane, appearing frequently. Cox also plays with light and shade and there are many fleeting, emotive moments where shadows flicker over walls, water, and natural features of the landscape. The images reflect Nijinsky’s words as they are written in the diaries and are spoken as a voice over by Derek Jacobi.

The film begins with a funeral procession, Nijinsky’s funeral. As the coffin and the mourning party move down a pathway we see ‘ghosts’ of Nijinsky hovering in the background and sometimes merging with the funeral procession. They are characters Nijinsky played in the ballets that made him the famous male dancer that he was—the Spirit of the Rose from Le spectre de la rose, the Golden Slave from Scheherazade, the Faune from L’Après-midi d’un faune, and so on. These characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the film, slipping between the other images, always reminding us of Nijinsky’s remarkable dancing career.

The dancing components, like the characters who hover around the funeral procession, are interspersed seemingly randomly between the flow of non-dancing imagery. David McAllister and Vicki Attard appear as the two characters in Le Spectre de la rose, while dancers from Leigh Warren and Dancers take on most of the other dancing roles. I admired Aidan Kane Munn’s ‘War Dance’, which he choreographed as a tormented, quivering solo and danced blank-faced. This was the item Nijinsky chose to dance at Suvretta House: ‘Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.’ It is described by Joan Acocella (following Romola Nijinsky’s description) as ‘a violent solo, presumably improvised’ and analysed by Ramsay Burt in relation to Nijinsky’s thoughts on war and peace.I also especially admired Csaba Buday’s performance as the Faune in a version of L’Après-midi d’un faune choreographed by Alida Chase and set outdoors in a clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. There was an animal-like awareness to Munn’s reactions as the Nymphs passed by, and his closing scene with the veil was gentle yet blatantly sexual.

There is a kind of narrative component to anchor the imagery and dancing. We meet Romola and her parents and the various doctors who examined Nijinsky, for example. But we never hear them speak, although their body language and facial expressions give us clues as to how the story and their thoughts about Nijinsky are unfolding. Their presence forces us to face the reality that is behind the film.

DVD cover

The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a truly beautiful, painterly film. Like John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which Hamburg Ballet performed in Australia in 2012, it is absolutely compelling and arouses so many thoughts about the nature of Nijinsky—the man and the dancer. But, in contrast to the Neumeier work, the Cox film is almost serene in its overall mood, despite some confronting and bloody images relating to Nijinsky’s vegetarianism, and the challenging words and ideas spoken forcefully by Jacobi. That I find the mood serene is is not to suggest, however, that Cox has not presented the drama and the confusion of thought that permeated Nijinsky’s life. It is just felt in a different manner. The film and the dance work complement each other in a very unusual way and, having at last seen the film, I look forward immensely to seeing the Neumeier work again when it is performed by the Australian Ballet later this year.

Michelle Potter, 25 June 2016

Featured image: Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka. Photographer and source unknown

1. Joan Acocella, in her introduction to the unexpurgated edition of the diaries, published in English in 1999 as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, explains in detail how Romola altered the diaries in that first publishing endeavour of 1936. In particular Acocella notes that around 40% of the contents of the diaries was omitted. Acocella’s introduction is, as is all her writing, lucid and informed: Joan Acocella (ed.), The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999).

2. Philip Tyndall describes the development of the film saying that Cox ‘did much of the cinematography himself in addition to the writing, directing, co-producing and editing.’ Philip Tyndall, ‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The culmination of a career.’ In Sense of Cinema. Issue 20, May 2002. Accessed 25 June 2016.

3. Ramsay Burt, ‘Alone in the world. Reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’. In On Stage Alone. Soloists and the modern dance canon, eds Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 2012).

Portrait of Andris Toppe

Dance diary. February 2016

  • Vale Andris Toppe

I was saddened to hear of the death of Andris Toppe whose contribution to the world of dance in Australia has been extraordinarily varied. The most lasting image I have of him in performance is as one of Clara’s Russian émigré friends in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the story of Clara where his portrayal was strong and individualistic. Just a few weeks ago, too, I had an email from him saying how much he enjoyed reading my biography of Dame Margaret Scott. At the time I had no idea he was so ill but now I am hugely pleased that he derived pleasure from the book in his final weeks of life.

Portrait of Andris Toppe

For a biography and gallery of images see Andris’ website.

Andris Toppe: born 16 May 1945, died 20 February 2016

  • Janet. A Silent Ballet Film

In February I was unexpectedly contacted by film maker Adam E Stone who sent me a link to a work he directed called Janet. A Silent Ballet Film. The Janet of the title is Janet Collins, an African-American dancer who is remembered as the first black dancer to dance full-time with a major dance company, in this case the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, which Collins joined in 1951.

Janet is moving in the way it conveys a political message, and in the complexity of the message it sets out to convey. It is interesting to speculate on why Stone chose to use the medium of silent film (the silencing of so-called minority cultures?), and also to speculate on the role the paintings of Degas play (some well known Degas ballet images are brought to life throughout the film). The dancer who plays Janet is Kiara Felder from Atlanta Ballet and she is a joy to watch.

Here is the You Tube link.

  • Steven McRae in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody

Steven McRae in Rhapsody. The Royal Ballet. Photo (c) Dave Morgan @DanceTabs.com

Steven McRae, with Benjamin Ella and Yasmine Naghdi, in Rhapsody. Photo: © Dave Morgan@DanceTabs.com. Courtesy the Royal Ballet

I have always found Steven McRae, Australian-born principal with Britain’s Royal Ballet, a little polite on those occasions when I have seen him live in performance. There has always seemed to be something he is holding back in his dancing, in spite of a very sound technique. Well, I now have seen another side of him in the Royal Ballet’s recently-screened film of an Ashton program consisting of Rhapsody and The Two Pigeons. As the leading male dancer (partnering Natalia Osipova) in Rhapsody, a work Ashton made in 1980, McRae was technically outstanding, handling the intricacies and speed of the Ashton choreography with apparent ease. He also gave his role a strength of character allowing us to imagine a storyline, if we so chose. Great performance. Terrific immersion in the role.

  • Site news

I published my first post on this site in June 2009, almost seven years ago. So much has changed in web design and development since then and I am pleased to announce that the design team at Racket is working on a new look for this site. Stay tuned.

  • Press for February

‘Dancing for survival.’ Preview of Indigenous dance programs at the National Film and Sound Archive. The Canberra Times, Panorama 6 February 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 29 February 2016

Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash

Spear. A Stephen Page film

17 February 2016, preview screening, Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

No doubt about it, Stephen Page’s Spear is a confronting film, and one in which the director’s approach is absolutely uncompromising. But it is also an incredibly beautiful film from so many points of view.

Spear centres on the spiritual journey of a young man, Djali, played by Hunter Page-Lochard, who seeks to understand what it is to be an Indigenous man suspended between two, often conflicting worlds. As he moves between those two worlds we encounter with him the pressures and problems that surround him, including substance abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and racism.

Hunter Page-Lochard with artists of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'spear'. Photo Edward Mulvihill

Hunter Page-Lochard with artists of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Some moments are (deliberately) quite crass—a dance to the 1960s song ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’, for example. Others are immensely powerful—such as a scene where Daniel Riley as ‘Prison Man’ engages with Elma Kris as ‘Old Woman’ who brings the cleansing power of a smoking ceremony into the prison mess hall. And others are breathtaking in their use of landscape as backdrop—the view of Kaine Sultan Babij as ‘Androgynous Man’ stalking through long grass and between trees is striking, as are the scenes in which Yolande Brown as ‘Earth Spirit’ walks along a red dust road.

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker

Elma Kris as ‘Old Woman’ and Daniel Riley as ‘Prison Man’ in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Tiffany Parker

Choreographically Page has delivered some of his best movement, whether in solo work for the main members of the cast, or in group scenes. And so powerful are the performances by the cast that there is absolutely no doubt about the message being put forward. Sound is everywhere too. An original score by David Page is complemented by songs from Djakapurra Munyarryun, although spoken text in English is minimal and is mostly delivered by actor Aaron Pedersen who plays the part of ‘Suicide Man’. And there is a suicide scene, which is very deftly handled. Ochre is everywhere as well, in all its four colours. It seems to permeate the production whether as paint on bodies or dust in the air.

What makes this tough, fearless, uncompromising film so quietly beautiful? Visually it is stunning. Director of photography Bonnie Elliott has delivered some amazing shots of an incredible landscape from outback to rugged coastline, and some of the camera angles and close-up shots are just breathtaking. Even her takes on run-down interiors, under-ground spaces and alley ways are moving. And Jacob Nash’s work as production designer gives the film a particular strength. As in his sets for Bangarra’s live shows, Nash has brought to the film an understanding of the power of minimalism in design. But perhaps more than anything it is Stephen Page’s ability to deliver the ultimate message of hope that stands out. The closing scene is a ‘punch the sky’ moment. Simple, direct and moving.

Spear is Stephen Page’s debut as director of a feature-length film. It is a remarkable film. Go see it.

Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash

Yolande Brown as ‘Earth Spirit’ in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Jacob Nash

Detail of the costume for Earth Spirit in 'Spear'.

A close-up view of the ‘Earth Spirit’ costume, the work of Jennifer Irwin.

 Michelle Potter, 19 February 2016

Follow this link for details of and bookings for the Canberra season of Spear at the Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive. It will also be screened at the Arc Cinema as a special fund raiser for Canberra Dance Theatre on 7 March.

Dance diary. January 2016

  • Indigenous dance programs in Canberra

The National Film and Sound Archive’s first Black Chat program for 2016 will take place at the Archive on 12 February at 6 pm and will feature dancer Tammi Gissell talking with curator Brenda Gifford on the topic ‘Indigenous identity through dance’. Gissell made a terrific impact in Canberra during the city’s centennial year, 2013, and her presence at Black Chat is enough to make the program more than worthwhile. But, in addition, the Archive is screening three films from its Film Australia Collection, Aeroplane Dance, 7 Colours, and Aboriginal Dances (five from Cape York and three performed by David Gulpilil).

Tammi Gissell 2012. Dance diary August. Photo Lorna Sim

Tammi Gissell rehearsing Seeking Biloela, Canberra c. 2013. Photo: © Lorna Sim

All three have features that I am sure will make interesting viewing but I was fascinated to read about Aeroplane Dance, both in a book (Savage Wilderness by Barry Ralph) giving a totally white perspective on the crash of an American bomber that generated the creation of the dance by a local Yanyuwa man, Frank Karrijiji, and in an online article with a wider, more balanced account. Read about the Black Chat session at this link.

Then in March the National Film and Sound Archive will host a season of Stephen Page’s Spear. This film, which had a world premiere in Canada at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2015, and an Australian premiere in Adelaide the following month, marks Page’s debut as director of a feature film. The Canberra season begins on 10 March and an 8 pm session on 12 March will include a Q & A session with Page and other members of the cast and crew. More later.

Filming 'Spear', 2015. Photo: Jacob Nash

Filming Spear, 2015. Photo: © Jacob Nash

  • Miscellaneous activities

The sole dance performance I saw during January was the Australian Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty for children—review below. My four grandchildren (aged from 8 to 5) all went (one went twice) and all loved it, even one 8 year old grandson who later confided to me that he really didn’t want to go but had, to his surprise, really liked it. So congratulations to the Australian Ballet for nurturing future audiences with this delightful pantomime-style show.

On another performance front, I made an abortive attempt to get to Sydney to see Marrugeku’s latest show Cut the Sky, but my plane from Canberra was involved in a bird strike and, sadly, I had no option but to cancel.

Other January activities hold future promise. I interviewed choreographer Alexander Ekman, who was in Sydney rehearsing Cacti with Sydney Dance Company for their CounterMove season beginning at the end of February. Our conversation will feed into a future feature for The Canberra Times.

Sydney Dance Company presents Alexander Ekman's Cacti. web Photo by Peter Greig

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. Photo: © Peter Greig

And I also spent several days in Melbourne with two archivists from the National Library sorting and boxing Dame Margaret Scott’s extensive collection of photographs, board papers, correspondence and other paper-based items for eventual transfer to Canberra.

  • Site news

Follow this link for a fascinating series of comments on an early post on James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina.

  • Press for January

‘Delightful Tchaikovsky for children.’ Review of the Australian Ballet’s Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. The Canberra Times, 22 January 2016, ‘Times 2’, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

Dance and the ageing body. Sue Healey

15 August 2015, ARC Cinema, Canberra

Recently I posted a review of Sue Healey’s outstanding new work, On View: Live Portraits. On the day I went to see the show, however, a second component of the work, two short films featuring ‘icons’ of Australian dance, Lucette Aldous and Shirley McKechnie, was not being shown. So I was pleased that I was able to catch these two short films in Canberra as part of a session called ‘Dance and the ageing body’ during National Science Week.

Of the two films, one was thrilling, the other interesting, although both showed Healey’s remarkable expertise as a dance film maker. The one that truly shone for its dance component, and for its relevance to the subject of the ageing body and its capacity to continue to move, was that featuring Lucette Aldous, former star of the Australian Ballet and before that of Ballet Rambert and other English companies. Aldous is now 78 and yet she continues to dance daily. The film shows her giving herself a floor barre, which has long been a hallmark of her teaching and her own practice. Then we see her performing a temps lié-style exercise and then dancing outdoors, first on a grassy area in front of a contemporary Australian homestead, and then beside a flowing stretch of water. She is still an absolutely stunning mover. Some parts of the film are shot in slow motion so we can see very clearly the shape of every movement and the space each movement occupies and fills. Breathtaking.

Lucette Aldous in a sitll from Sue Healey's short film 'Lucette Aldous'.

Lucette Aldous in a still from Sue Healey’s short film ‘Lucette Aldous’

Some of the most exciting parts are when Healey uses excerpts  from the Australian Ballet film of Don Quixote in which Aldous famously danced Kitri to Rudolf Nureyev’s Basilio (and I might add gave Nureyev a run for his money). Using a layering technique Healey has Aldous behind a scrim watching and commenting on her performance as Kitri. And in another sequence Aldous dances with a billowing red scarf as we become aware, within the Don Quixote film, of an exchange between Aldous and Nureyev, which features a shawl. It made me hunt out my Don Q DVD and enjoy it again.

 Shirley McKechnie in a still from Sue Healey's short film 'Shirley McKechnie'

Shirley McKechnie in a still from Sue Healey’s short film ‘Shirley McKechnie’

The second section focuses on Shirley McKechnie, now 88 and much less mobile than Aldous. McKechnie has influenced many people working in the area of contemporary dance in Australia and, when a stroke left her unable to continue her own practice, she turned to writing, largely in the field of cognition. As a result, this short film is not so much about how to continue to drive the body physically as one ages, but about how to reinvent oneself in order to remain active within the field of dance.

Healey uses photographs to show the ageing process beginning with childhood shots of McKechnie and moving through the decades until we encounter McKechnie as an older woman. Once the film moves to McKechnie as a live subject, she remains seated leafing through a book. Pages of writing flutter through the air and land at her fingertips as the titles and dates of her academic articles are thrown onto the screen. The fluttering pages are pretty much the only movement throughout the film and so it suffers somewhat from being shown alongside ‘Lucette Aldous’ where movement is such a vital and astonishing component.

Although I did not see the films as part of the On View installation, it is easy to imagine how they might fit as part of the whole show, and the triple screen images link nicely with a similar arrangement in the live show. But Healey has a number of ideas on how these films might develop. They deserve to be developed further, perhaps with other ‘icons’ in addition to Aldous and McKechnie. But the issue of how to juxtapose veteran performers so that one doesn’t steal the limelight (deservedly in the case of Aldous) will remain an issue.

Michelle Potter, 17 August 2015

On View. Live Portraits. Sue Healey

22 July 2015, Performance Space, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

The printed program for Sue Healey’s latest work, On View. Live Portraits, contains a short essay by Christopher Chapman, senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Writing of screen-based digital portraits, or video portraits, he says: like any portrait, the genre should succeed when it communicates a compelling sense of person-hood, or identity, or individual being. This is exactly what Healey’s work does, even though it is so much more than an exercise in digital or video portraiture. It communicates a strong sense that we are watching the very separate identities of five extraordinary individuals—Martin del Amo, Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock, Raghav Handa and Nalina Wait.

Dancers in Sue Healey's 'In View. Live Portraits', 2015. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Dancers in Sue Healey’s On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

On entering the darkened Bay 20 of Carriageworks, the venue for On View, it took several seconds for our eyes to adjust. But when they did we were confronted by those five individuals scattered, seemingly randomly, in one half of the cavernous space. The performers were all moving, if sometimes just slightly, and were involved in some way with a moving image as background or projection. But in essence they represented an image that, although clearly live, we could interpret as a portrait in a relatively traditional sense.

The movements were interesting enough, but it was only later that their significance emerged. In this opening segment, Shona Erskine, for example, sat quietly in a corner twitching slightly on occasions and adjusting a red item of clothing that partly covered the upper section of her body. A fox fur, complete with head, tail, and feet, was spread on the floor beside her and, with the moody lighting in which she was shrouded, the image had the quality of a Baroque portrait. Later, Erskine danced a solo with the fox fur, wrapping it around her, wearing its head on her head, and otherwise utilising it as an addition to her solo. That initial portrait had come to life and the slight twitches we noticed earlier had turned into more obvious fox-like movements.

After a few minutes spent absorbing this introduction, we were ushered to the other end of the bay and invited to sit down. Five screens confronted us now and each had three digital portraits of the five dancers, with one screen for each performer. Slowly the portraits began to move and it was quite a remarkable experience to watch how costume affected the dancerly image. Raghav Handa, for example, wore three different costumes in his three portraits—white, loose, Indian-style trousers (no top) in one, a casually elegant shirt and trousers in another, and a suit in the last. He executed the same, quite simple bending movement in each of his three on screen portraits, but it looked quite different in each case. I found myself unable to do anything but favour the movement when Handa was wearing his Indian outfit. It was his dance costume, which I knew, and the power of that knowledge coloured my perception.

As the piece progressed the dancers appeared live, dancing around the screens as well as appearing on them. The interaction between film footage and live performance grew stronger.

Shona foreground

Shona Erskine (centre), Nalina Wait (centre screen) Benjamin Hancock (background left), Martin del Amo (background right). On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Particularly affecting were a series of solos where the dancers seemed to take on the attributes of a creature from the natural world. Handa was seen on screen handling a horse as if breaking it in, while at the same time he performed live with the fluid quality that marks his dancing, and with something of the freedom and wild abandon of the horse. An extraordinary performance by Benjamin Hancock was the highlight of this section. His acrobatic style of movement, punctured by a vocabulary that often looked quite balletic, along with the film footage on the screens of a praying mantis, was mesmerising.

Benjamin Hancock and praying mantis, On View 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

Benjamin Hancock and praying mantis, On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Later, Martin del Amo was seen in a cemetery moving solemnly. A stone bird perched on one of the headstones seemed to loom over him.

There were segments when the dancers performed together, or when they came forward and stared at the audience. The gaze of Nalina Wait was especially powerful and, in one filmed section, her expressions told an entire story. Her dancing was incredibly lyrical and an absolute joy to watch, especially her solo where she appropriated the fluidity of a fish, which we saw on screen as Wait performed on stage. And there were  some exceptional moments when she danced with Handa and del Amo, who adjusted her long hair and circular skirt, manipulating the image we received.

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo and Raghav Handa in 'On View. Live Portraits', 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo and Raghav Handa in On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

On View. Live Portraits had so many layers of meaning at every turn. It was absolutely exhilarating to watch and is a major work that deserves wide exposure. While Healey as choreographer and film maker, and her director of photography, Judd Overton, have worked strongly together before, with On View they have taken their collaboration to new heights. The links between live performance and the high quality moving image material, rather than being frustrating as they sometimes are when dance and film aim to coexist, were absolutely fluid and illuminating of each other. The show was enhanced by lighting from Karen Norris and an original sound score from Darrin Verhagen and Justin Ashworth. Definitely a five star experience, which can be savoured post show by some wonderful photographic images by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Michelle Potter, 23 July 2015

Featured image: Martin del Amo in On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Celebrate Dance. Paris Opera Ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet once again demonstrated its incredible technical and artistic strengths in Celebrate Dance, a film introduced by the company’s retiring director Brigitte Lefèvre and recently released in Australian cinemas. Opening the program was the Paris Opera Ballet’s traditional parade of dancers from the company and its school—the défilé—seen for the first time on film. This spectacular presentation begins in a chandeliered ante-room, the foyer de la danse of Degas fame. Some 350 artists and artists-to-be, beginning with the youngest children from the ballet school and ending with the étoiles of the company, make their way from the ante-room down the stage of the Palais Garnier, giving a bow as they reach the front of the stage before moving into assigned places. There is no formal dancing as such but it generates goose-bumps to see these dancers on parade, and to hear the audience honour them with, as might be expected, the greatest applause given to the étoiles, who enter singly rather than in a group as happens with the rest of the artists. Finally they form a tableau which Robert Greskovic has described in his book Ballet 101: a complete guide to learning and loving the ballet: ‘In its final tableau the défilé amasses a garden of ballet beauty, paying homage to the art form’s continuity and freshness.’

Paris Opera Ballet, 'Défilé'

Le défilé du ballet, final tableau, Paris Opera Ballet, 2014

There is also an account of the origin of the défilé du ballet, as it is now called, in Greskovic’s book. He notes that this parade of dancers was introduced by ballet master Léo Staats in 1926, when it was called Le défilé. The name was changed to Le grand défilé when the director of the company was Serge Lifar. Currently it is performed to the March of the Trojans from Les Troyens of Hector Belioz. Staats set it to the March from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

The défilé was followed by a performance of Études, which Lefèvre spoke of in her introduction as being a rather challenging ballet! But the Paris Opera Ballet seemed to sail through the performance with all the precision and technical expertise that the work demands. I enjoyed in particular one of the opening sequences done at the barre in which the dancers showed three different types of ronds de jambe—à terre, en l’air and grands, with perfect timing and precision, every leg at the same height, every foot closing at the same time and so on. Mesmerising mechanics performed with speed! These opening sections at the barre were enhanced, I thought, by moody lighting in which the upper part of the body was scarcely visible at times. It gave absolute focus to the precise movements of the lower body, a special effect of the film not usually achieved in a stage performance.

Dorothée Gilbert danced the leading female role in Études and she was partnered by Joshua Hoffalt and Karl Paquette. It was impossible not to be stunned by their joyous dancing—in particular by Gilbert’s beautifully controlled balances and multiple turns, and the beats, turns and jumps of the two men. But every dancer performed astonishingly well. And again yes, O’Neill was there turning fabulous fouettés and making her presence well and truly felt.

I regret that circumstances did not allow me to stay to see the final section, excerpts (as far as I could tell) from Nutcracker. I would be delighted to receive comments on this last section.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 2015

Footnote: And on the subject of Études, I recently interviewed Lisa Pavane for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. When this interview goes online, hopefully soon, it is worth listening to Pavane’s account of dancing in Études. It was after her opening night performance in this extremely demanding ballet in 1986 that she was promoted to principal.