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.

The Nutcracker on film. The Australian Ballet

It was a pleasure to be able to see Peter Wright’s Nutcracker once again, this time on film danced by the Australian Ballet and recorded in Melbourne on 17 September 2014. It was shown on ABC-TV on Christmas Eve and is due to be released on DVD by the ABC in early January.

The absolute star was Benedicte Bemet as Clara and I regret not having had the opportunity to see her on stage. She commanded the role from beginning to end, never losing strength or characterisation. She showed off a wonderfully fluid technique and I especially loved her use of épaulement, her gorgeous carriage of the head, those beautiful arabesques that seemed to soar upwards, and the way she always, but always, stepped forward onto a turned out foot. Those technical matters came as if they were second nature and she looked every inch the dancer from start to finish. And she showed her versatility as a performer in Act II as she joined in all the dances, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and so forth, according to Peter Wright’s vision for the role.

Bendicte Bemet and artists of the Australian Ballet in 'The Nutcracker', 2014. Photo Jeff Busby

Benedicte Bemet as Clara with artists of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo Jeff Busby

Ingrid Gow was also impressive as Clara’s mother where I could not help but notice how expressively she used her arms, especially in her dance with Clara’s father (Brett Simon). Andrew Killian made his presence felt as the occasionally frightening Drosselmeyer in Act I, an attitude he tempered beautifully with something more gentle in Act II as he involved Clara in the action.

But looking from a different perspective, one of the most interesting features of this recording was the way the lighting looked so different from what I remember from the Sydney performance I saw. Gone were the garish colours of that Act II set and what appears to have been a more subdued approach to the lighting design in fact made the set look quite beautiful at times. With what were always carefully selected close-up shots, it was possible to see elements of the set highlighted. Not having always to see the entire set gave a quite different impression. The downside, however, was that often the darker scenes, especially in Act I and in the final scene when Clara finds herself again by her family Christmas tree, were often scarcely visible.

The grand pas de deux was danced on this occasion by Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson and, unlike my previous experience, there was indeed a real connection between this Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Jackson’s partnering was impeccable—those shoulder lifts, followed by a full circle swirl before Eastoe was lowered into a fish dive, were just wonderful. Eastoe’s command of the choreography was beyond question and her every movement was beautifully and clearly articulated. Together they danced as one.

But I was still a little disappointed. I wanted this pas de deux to look like more than just a lovely dance. It still seemed to lack excitement, daring and the power to thrill. I’m not sure what Peter Wright thinks the pas de deux should look like. I wondered whether in his version he just wanted it to be a lovely part of a lovely story? I wanted it also to be a show piece with the sense of grandeur that goes with the great classical tradition. I wanted it to be more than just a part of the storyline. It was an exquisite pas de deux but it wasn’t a ‘grand’ one for me.

Nevertheless this Nutcracker remains a joy to watch and the DVD (details at this link) will be a worthy addition to any ballet collection.

Michelle Potter, 29 December 2015

The Golds. A film by Sue Healey

The Golds is the latest production from Sydney-based film maker, Sue Healey. It does much to strengthen her position as a leading maker of dance films in Australia. With an earlier career as a dancer and choreographer to inform her work, Healey is able to hone in on what is intrinsic to dance, as indefinable as those intrinsic qualities might be.

The Golds are the dancers of Canberra’s mature age dance group, GOLD. (Growing Old Disgracefully, is the expanded form of the name). They are all over 55, some are much older. What is especially noticeable, and what is perhaps the most moving aspect of the film, is that most of these older men and women dance without a trace of self-consciousness. Their bodies are not, and mostly never have been, dancers’ bodies but they show the transformative power of dance. From this point of view The Golds is a truly beautiful film and much credit must go to Liz Lea for her inspirational leadership of the group.

I especially enjoyed a solo by Greg Barrett, a tall man with a long white beard. Made as a slow motion segment, his beard and his black, loose-fitting outfit moved beautifully with his very fluid body. Then there were some lovely segments with another dancer, whom I only know at this stage as Jane, a nun of (I think) the Brigidine order, dancing with Abbie, her little blind dog. She showed such honest movement, both with Abbie and in another section, in which she performed in front of a wall covered in what looked like graffiti or old, torn posters.

Scene from Sue Healey's film 'The Golds' (2)
Scene from Sue Healey’s film The Golds, 2014

The film might also be seen as a series of vignettes as individual dancers recount why they joined GOLD and what their backgrounds have been. Thus The Golds becomes a mini documentary. There are the expected responses to questions posed (off camera and not heard by the viewer). ‘It’s good exercise for an ageing body’, ‘I want to stay active’ and other similar remarks. But there are also some surprises. ‘No I can’t do the splits, but is it necessary? I don’t think so’, or ‘I was attracted by the word disgracefully in the name’.

Director of photography, Judd Overton, has selected some spectacular locations for this film. Canberra’s landscape and some of the city’s well-known architectural features form the background for much of the film. There are some eye-catching shots of figures in the landscape and figures interacting with features of the architecture. But there are also some interior locations. Some are domestic interiors, some are in Canberra institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery. They have all been carefully chosen and add a layer of exceptional visual interest.

Scene from Sue Healey's film 'The Golds' (1)
Scene from Sue Healey’s film The Golds, 2014

The first public screening of The Golds was at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, on 3 October 2014 as part of the Archive’s final Silver Screenings program. Sadly, this program now goes into limbo as part of budget cutbacks.

This screening of The Golds was essentially a preview, as Healey noted in her opening remarks. There are one or two technical issues to be fine tuned, she said, one of which she hopes will make the program suitable as a TV documentary.

Michelle Potter, 6 October 2014

Le palais de cristal & Daphnis et Chloé. Paris Opera Ballet

Watching dance on the big screen has many pleasures. Perhaps the biggest joy these days is being able to see, so soon after a premiere, works presented by major companies from the other side of the world. The recent screening in Australia of a filmed performance from the Paris Opera Ballet is a case in point. Filmed just days after the opening at the Opéra Bastille, this program brought together Le palais de cristal from George Balanchine and Daphnis et Chloé, a new work from Benjamin Millepied, shortly to take over at POB from Brigitte Lefèvre.

Le palais de cristal opened the program. Made by Balanchine in 1947 especially for POB, it is better known around the world in a revised form as Symphony in C. One of the aspects of the filming that I especially liked was that the recording was often made from a position high up in the theatre. As a result the precise and very formal patterns Balanchine created for Le palais de cristal were easily appreciated. But we were also given many occasions to see the dancers as if we were  sitting in the best seats in the house. The closer shots provided a good view of the costumes, newly designed by Christian Lacroix. Some have seen them as overly decorative. I thought they suited the work and I was especially fascinated by the tutus for the corps de ballet. They seemed to have a hoop-like addition to the skirt that gave them a kind of puff-ball look.

But of course the highlight was the dancing. It is always amazing to see the precision of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. Never a foot wrong! One dancer from amongst the soloists stood out. Not knowing the dancers as much as I would like I don’t know her name but she was, I think, of Japanese extraction. What appealed to me was the way she stepped forward into the space in front of her, generously, and the way her movements seemed to have an ongoing existence. A lift of the arm didn’t finish at the finger tips but looked as though it continued through space. Beautiful.

Paris Opera Ballet, 'Le palais de cristal'. Photo: © Agathe Poupeney
Amandine Albisson, Matthieu Ganio and dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet in Le palais de cristal, 1st movement. Photo: © Agathe Poupeney

Daphnis et Chloé had a certain fascination, given that I remain an admirer of Graeme Murphy and his works made for Sydney Dance Company made over a thirty year period between the mid 1970s and the early 2000s. Murphy’s Daphnis and Chloe, made in 1980 and designed by Kristian Fredrikson, could not have been further apart from that of Millepied. But I have no wish to make a comparison, just a comment on what a different take it was, visually, choreographically and in terms of portrayal of the narrative.

I found Millepied’s work hard to follow. The choreography certainly flowed and there were some lovely moments of mass movement from the corps. But the storyline wasn’t really conveyed strongly. It was something of a cross between a story ballet and an abstraction, but in the end neither. The standout dancer was François Alu as Bryaxis. Millepied gave him a solo full of spectacular jumps and turns and he rose to the occasion.

Daniel Buren’s large, brightly coloured shapes that descended from the flies and then withdrew back upwards were beautiful in themselves but they didn’t help with understanding the story. In the interview Buren gave to Mme Lefèvre prior to the start of the performance he talked about voids and the idea of occupying space. He is a conceptual artist but the concept he was aiming for with his design to my mind didn’t help the ballet. And why, at the conclusion of the ballet, were the dancers’ costumes transformed into colour from the white they were throughout the rest of the work? At the same time, Buren’s shapes were removed only to reappear a little later for a curtain call. The whole thing escaped me. I wondered whether, for this work, I would have been more satisfied had I been in the theatre watching live.

Despite my problems with Daphnis et Chloé, it is always a huge pleasure watching Paris Opera Ballet performances. The practice of filming live and then transmitting around the world is a great initiative. May it continue.

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2014

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty: the film

Matthew Bourne’s film of his re-imagined Sleeping Beauty, a work that premiered as a live show late in 2012, was recorded over a week during performances at the Bristol Hippodrome. It was filmed in HD, not 3D. Personally, I remain a sceptic of dance in 3D and Bourne’s film confirms for me that in this day and age a well thought through and edited film of a live performance can have all the visual impact and passion for dance that one might wish to see. As I have not seen the live show at this stage my comments on the film are also comments on Bourne’s version of what is generally regarded as an iconic work in the ballet repertoire. My preview story, published in The Canberra Times on 7 September 2013, is at this link. It gives something of the background to the work, which I won’t go over in this post.

The baby Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Courtesy Sharmill Films
Count Lilac with the baby Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand. Courtesy Sharmill Films

What struck me instantly about the work itself was that Bourne is an amazing storyteller and has a great way with theatrical tricks. Nothing surprising there though. We have seen it before from Bourne. Nevertheless, I need to say it again. Moving the storyline from 1890 and the babyhood of Aurora, to 1911 and her coming of age and on to the present and her marriage—and the surprise of what comes right at the end, Bourne has indeed as he says ‘created a different look and set of manners, including theatrical manners, for each era’. I loved the dancing in the Edwardian scenes (Aurora’s coming of age) with great use made of Tchaikovsky’s well known waltz. But my favourite ‘set of manners’ came as the 100 years of sleep passed by and Aurora’s palace home became legendary and a spot for tourists to gather and take photos of themselves and the site with their mobile devices.

Perhaps the most difficult ‘era’ to reconcile (for those who have been brought up with Aurora’s Wedding as a staple in their dance-going experiences) is the present day nightclub scene when Aurora is sacrificed on the altar of Caradoc, son of Carabosse and the rival love interest. Aurora’s Wedding was never like this! But her rescue and the subsequent events washed away any feeling of being ill at ease.

I couldn’t help feeling at times that Bourne was making allusions to other ballets as the work proceeded. Those tennis players who appeared in the Edwardian scene were surely a reference to Nijinsky’s Jeux and as Aurora lay on the ground falling into her deep sleep with her mother leaning over her, grief-stricken, we seemed to be seeing an allusion to the end of Giselle Act I. And was that bespectacled man in the white suit and hat lurking in the background as the Edwardian scene came to an end a reference to Aschenbach in the Visconti film Death in Venice? I saw those allusions whether or not they were intended and I guess this is what made this Sleeping Beauty so rich and engrossing for me. There was never a moment when one tended to drift away. Too much happening, too much to think about.

Looking at the work as a film, I admired in particular the way close-ups were judiciously shot to advance our understanding of the characters. I am thinking in particular of the close-up shots of Caradoc. Dressed magnificently in red and black by Lez Brotherston, whose designs for the work are extraordinary, we got the picture pretty quickly—a scheming, brooding man. Takes after his mother no doubt!

Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty.
Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand. Courtesy Sharmill Films

Filmed live as it was, it was charming to have an audience reaction—both laughter and applause—that wasn’t canned. And the intertitles that told the story as the work moved along from scene to scene were set inside a border of roses that themselves told a story—a black rose, a white rose, a red rose. All had a special meaning within the work. The production sped along. I was immersed in it all and relished the performances, especially from Hannah Vassallo as Aurora. Even the credits were gorgeous with action shots of the main characters as their names flashed up.

This is one to see a few more times and, although Bourne says that it is good to know the traditional version as then it becomes more apparent how he has treated the storyline and developed the characters, I suspect this is a film that can also be enjoyed by those who aren’t so aware of the traditional version.

Michelle Potter, 8 September 2013

Never stand still. Jacob’s Pillow

'Never stand still'. DVD cover

I finally got round to getting myself a copy of the DVD Never stand still: dancing at Jacob’s Pillow. And I’m so glad I did. What is particularly satisfying about this DVD documentary is that there is no promotion of a particular company or a person and no media hype. It’s simply about dance in its many and varied forms. ‘Dancing is direct and honest,’ says Mark Morris, one of the several illustrious interviewees appearing on Never stand still. And that’s what we get: direct, honest and simply beautiful dance.

A few sections particularly stood out for me, although others will have their own favourites I am sure. I especially enjoyed segments featuring Mark Morris and his dancers, perhaps because those works of his I have seen recently have not impressed me to any great extent—Beaux danced by San Francisco Ballet and Pacific from Houston Ballet, both of which I saw earlier this year, left me feeling underwhelmed. Never stand still has some lovely footage from Morris’ Italian Concerto and Love Song Waltzes and a brief look at a work called Falling Down Stairs, which Morris made in conjunction with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom we also see on the DVD. The excerpts from these works show quite clearly what Morris is best known for, his astonishing musicality. And Morris is a forthright and articulate speaker in his interview segments.

I was also especially taken with Shantala Shivalingappa, a solo Kuchipudi dancer born in Madras and raised in Paris. What an amazingly expressive body she has and how she uses it to her advantage. Every movement fills the space and she seems to linger a little at the high point of each movement before seamlessly continuing to the next.

Segements featuring Suzanne Farrell speaking about her transition from Balanchine ballerina to company director make interesting viewing as do excerpts from Balanchine ballets she has set on her own company. Natalia Magnicaballi, a principal with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, is startlingly good in the lead in Tzigane.

Gideon Obarzanek makes an appearance and there are excerpts from his work I want to dance better at parties performed by Chunky Move. I also loved the all too brief footage from Bournonville’s Napoli courtesy of the Royal Danish Ballet, along with a brief discussion of the Danes making their first appearance in the United States at the Pillow at the invitation of Ted Shawn. Then there’s Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Judith Jamison, tap, vaudeville…so much more.

Interspersed throughout the contemporary footage is rare archival material showing some of the early performances at Jacob’s Pillow along with an underlying narrative about Shawn and the founding of the this renowned festival, an annual event held at Becket, Massachusetts, in the beautiful surroundings of the Berkshire Hills. If you’ve been there it will bring back wonderful memories not just of the variety of dancing on offer, but of that glorious outdoor stage, those barns and the spectacular surrounding countryside. If you have not had the good fortune to be there Never stand still will make you want to pack your bags for 2014.

Never stand still is so worth watching and is available online at the usual places for quite a small amount of money, even with our dollar falling against the greenback. Watch the trailer below.

Michelle Potter, 26 August 2013

Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'

Virtuosi. Sue Healey

Sue Healey has been making dance films since 1997. However, her latest production, Virtuosi, is different in a very major way. At around 80 minutes in length Virtuosi is a documentary, whereas until now Healey has focused on making short films. Virtuosi is eight stories in one, dance portraits of eight New Zealanders, ‘artists from the edge of the world’, who have made careers beyond their homeland: Mark Baldwin, Craig Bary, Lisa Densem, Raewyn Hill, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Ross McCormack, Jeremy Nelson and Claire O’Neil. And of course both Healey and the composer of the film’s music, Mike Nock, fall into the same category. They too are New Zealanders whose careers have taken them well beyond their homeland.

Healey says when the opportunity arose she was ready to take on the challenge of a full-length film. She says she always enjoyed making short films, using what she refers to as ‘the distillation approach, honing the idea to its essence’, but that it was time for her to investigate ‘a different duration and its inherent qualities and demands’. Not that it was all smooth sailing, apparently. Healey says that finding a structure for the documentary was a huge challenge and that she was more than fortunate to work with an expert editor in Lindi Harrison and with Judd Overton as director of photography. Of Overton, Healey says: ‘Judd’s shooting style is extremely improvisatory—he is willing to solve problems in the here and now, rather than having pre-conceived notions of shot and frame. This is an extremely exciting way of making film and art’. This approach fitted nicely with Healey’s own strategies.

‘As a filmmaker’, she says, ‘I am still very much influenced by the choreographic approach, preferring to allow the structure to find itself organically through the process. Now, this goes against the usual film canon and can land you in very hot water when you realise you don’t have the necessary shots and logic to fully render an idea. However, I was extremely confident that I had more than enough material to create a range of outcomes’.

Specifically, Healey set a range of tasks for her eight subjects asking them, for example, to create movement sequences in iconic locations in their ‘new’ homes. Each of the artists created an outdoor ‘public’ dance (stills and production shots from some of these dances are in the mosaic below). Each also created a ‘still life’ solo in an interior location. And each created an intimate, close-up hand dance.

Scenes from the filming of Virtuosi. Images courtesy of Sue Healey

Virtuosi has already been shown at festivals from New York to Tasmania (and of course in New Zealand where it premiered in 2012). Healey has recently heard that is in competition in the Golden Prague International Television Festival, and also that it will get a theatrical release throughout New Zealand. In addition, Virtuosi exists as a 3 channel installation for gallery spaces.

Canberra audiences have the opportunity to see Virtuosi as part of Scinema: Dance science and dance memories, a week-long program of dance films at the National Film and Sound Archive. Virtuosi screens on Thursday 15 August at 7 pm in the ARC cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive and is preceded by one of Healey’s short films called Once in a blue moon.

Virtuosi is short listed at the 2013 Australian Dance Awards in the category Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media. Recipients of awards will be announced in Canberra on 5 August 2013.

More on the Arc screening …   More on the 2013 Australian Dance Awards short list …  [ Update: these links are no longer available]

Michelle Potter, 19 July 2013

Featured image: Film maker Sue Healey with performer Sarah-Jayne Howard. Courtesy Sue Healey

Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'

George Balanchine’s Nutcracker. New York City Ballet on film

New York does December in its own inimitable way and one annual and memorable event is a season of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker performed at Lincoln Center by New York City Ballet. This year, however, you didn’t have to be in New York to see the production. It was filmed live on 13 December and relayed in a high definition cinema broadcast across the United States. Just before Christmas it was screened in movie houses in Britain, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Australia.

While we all know that there’s nothing like being there, I loved the way this Nutcracker was so carefully filmed, especially Act I. I even liked the way the camera selected close-ups and never felt I was missing out on the action by having a close-up cut into the full stage view. I mostly liked the views shot from a side box too, especially in the Snowflakes scene where a high view accentuated the enclosed space of the snow-covered forest without taking anything away from the dancing. From a filmic point of view, Act II was probably less successful. But I suspect that this had something to do with Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s somewhat overwrought set of sweets and candies. Its visual complexities detract from the dancing at the best of times and, when seen on screen, the limitations of the two dimensionality of the medium are accentuated. However, I never once wished it had been shot in 3D!

One aspect of Balanchine’s version that I find especially enjoyable is the way in which children are incorporated into the production and the way the adult performers never treat them as anything but an integral part of the narrative. In Act I the children dance with the adults as well as with each other and have roles as soldiers, while in Act II they have their own roles as angels and as the children of Mother Ginger. In Act II they dance in the opening section and in the coda with all the panache of their adult counterparts. The coda in particular is quite fast but they are in there, totally unfazed and dancing beautifully.

The roles of Fritz and Marie, or Clara as we more commonly know her counterpart in Australia, are also children’s roles, rather than roles for smaller company members as often happens. The children from the School of American Ballet, who fill all the children’s roles, are professionals-in-training and it is hard to fault the way they conduct themselves on stage. In the role of Fritz, Maximilian Brooking Lendegger was captivatingly naughty and almost stole the show from the rather more placid and appropriately well-mannered Colby Clark as the princely child hero and nephew of Herr Drosselmeier. Marie was danced by a very composed Fiona Brennan. I was also mesmerised by a dark- haired child aged about eight, the youngest (or at least smallest in height) of the Polichinelles who emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirt in Act II. She grabbed my attention immediately with her innate understanding of how to use the space around her to achieve maximum effect from her movements.

Of the adult performers Megan Fairchild danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and was partnered by Joaquin De Luz: lovely techniques both of them but on this occasion not much of the radiance that should accompany these roles. They are after all the roles of a prima ballerina and a premier danseur. The standout performers among the adults were Teresa Reichlen as a glamorously slinky Coffee, Tiler Peck as the leading Marzipan (in a tutu that I found clumsy and unattractive though) and Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop, the leading dancer in the Waltz of the Flowers. Bouder’s technical skills were electrifying. In Act I Adam Hendrickson gave a strong performance as Herr Drosselmeier. He captured every bit of the fantasy and mystery of this character.

The film was introduced by Kelly Ripa, who hosts a popular television series in the United States, and she also hosted several backstage interviews during the intermission. They included some interviews with excited child performers and a discussion of some of the technical tricks asociated with the production – the Christmas tree that grows during the transformation scene, for example. They were all interesting, even fascinating at times, but I could easily have done without some of Ripa’s comments. They were no doubt meant to appeal but often dumbed down what was happening.

Years ago now the American dance writer Edwin Denby remarked of Balanchine’s take on Nutcracker: ‘It’s Balanchine’s Oklahoma!’ This particular production, with sets by Ter-Arutunian and costumes by Karinska, dates back to 1964 and it is indeed a very American production, right down to its flying, reindeer-drawn sleigh that carries Marie and her Prince across the stage in the closing scene. At Christmas its glitz, even when it’s a little over the top and even when Ripa behaves a little too ingenuously, is irresistible.

Michelle Potter, 27 December 2011