Firestarter, documenting the origins and rise of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is filled with emotion—from joy to sadness and everything in between. But leaving the emotions to one side for the moment, I was utterly transfixed by two political moments that were part of the unfolding story. The first was footage of former Prime Minister Paul Keating giving his famous ‘Redfern Speech’ in 1992. In that speech Keating gave his assessment of Aboriginal history as it unfolded following the arrival in Australia of the British in the 18th century. ‘We committed the murders,’ he said. ‘We took the lands.’ ‘We brought the diseases.’ ‘We took the children.’ The second was by another former Prime Minister, John Howard, explaining in 1998 why, in his opinion, there was no need to issue an apology to the Indigenous population of Australia for wrongs committed to those people. Such disparate points of view. How sad is that and how can that be?
As mind-blowing as it was seeing those two political moments unfold, however, Firestarter was certainly more than politics. It traced the story of three brothers, Stephen, David and Russell Page from their childhood in Brisbane to their training at what became the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, NAISDA; their roles in the establishment and ongoing development of Bangarra; and the frightening end to the lives of David and Russell. Along the way we met others involved in the complex story—Carole Johnson, founder of NAISDA and Bangarra; Frances Rings, currently associate artistic director of Bangarra; cultural consultants Djakapurra Munyarryun and Elma Kris; several current and past dancers of Bangarra; Wesley Enoch, artistic director across a range of theatrical organisations; Hetti Perkins, daughter of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins; Hunter Page Lochard, son of Stephen Page; Rhimi Page, son of Russell Page; and others. All had unique stories and points of view.
There was of course some great dancing from Bangarra performances over the 30+ years of its existence, and there was some gorgeous footage of a young David (as Little Davey Page) singing on early television shows such as Countdown and the Paul Hogan Show, along with scenes from his theatre shows. Then there was compelling footage from the Indigenous component of the opening ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. But perhaps most moving of all were scenes from Bennelong, Bangarra’s ground breaking work from 2017, which was described in the film as Stephen Page’s most successful work to date, and which he made as he worked at recovering from the death of his brother David in 2016.
Also associated with the death of David Page was footage from the presentation to Stephen of the prestigious J. C. Williamson Award at the Helpmann Awards event in 2016. The acceptance speech Stephen made (supported by his son Hunter standing beside him) so soon after the death of David was gut wrenching to watch and hear.
But on a more joyous note, perhaps my favourite part of the whole film was watching Stephen, the proud grandfather, holding his baby granddaughter, daughter of Hunter and his wife. Life continues. Life triumphs. Bangarra, such an exceptional company, moves forward.
This beautiful and challenging film was directed by Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin and produced by Ivan O’Mahoney.
In a move to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic, BalletX, a contemporary company based in Philadelphia, PA, recently presented a virtual season of four dance films from four choreographers—Rena Butler, Loughlan Prior, Caili Quan and Penny Saunders. Each choreographer took quite a different approach to the commission and watching such a diverse program was certainly an interesting experience.
Loughlan Prior is well-known to Australian and New Zealand dance audiences. Australian-born and educated in Melbourne at the Victorian College of the Arts, he is currently resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet. He has made work for a range of companies in addition to RNZB, including Queensland Ballet, and his schedule for 2021 includes new works for RNZB, Singapore Dance Theatre, Ballet Collective Aotearoa and Chamber Music New Zealand.
Scribble was his work for BalletX Beyond, as the newly established virtual program is called. It was made on three dancers and filmed in black and white. For me it was the most interesting film of the four, particularly because of its choreographic approach, which blended the vocabulary of ballet (the female dancer, Andrea Yorita, danced on pointe) and contemporary movement. The two male dancers performed strongly with Zachary Kapeluck partnering Yorita throughout, and with Stanley Glover showing his fabulous, long-limbed flexibility and highly expressive hands and fingers.
The ‘scribble’ of the title was created by Glynn Urquhart and consisted of white lines of animation that sometimes seemed to be generated by the dancers’ movements, at other times by the music, and at others simply out of nowhere. Occasionally the animation morphed into figures of the dancers, or vice versa. Danced to a score by Melbourne-based composer Gareth Wiecko and filmed by Daniel Madoff, Scribble was quite mesmerising.
Scribble was the only one of the four films that was not recorded at a site specific venue. The others were filmed across a range of venues in Greater Philadelphia including Natural Lands’ Stoneleigh and Idlewild, el Centro de Oro, Sea Isle City, St Malachi Church, Belmont Stables, and the Navy Yard.
Of the three other works, I found Caili Quan’s Love Letter particularly moving. Quan’s home country is Guam and the music, which was a mixed bag of items, reflected the islands, especially the islands of the Pacific (although a Harry Belafonte song was included). It was something of a meditation on whom and/or what the choreographer loved, and perhaps missed, at particular stages in her life.
The film began on a beach with a beautiful solo from Francesca Forcella who seemed to be searching her mind for remembered moments. The conclusion began with Richard Villaverde dancing on a rooftop overlooking a cityscape. He was eventually joined by Forcella and we could speculate on what their relationship was as they moved towards and away from each other. But in between this beginning and end, the film moved from venue to venue and the whole was structured so we were taken suddenly from place to place, person to person, just as the mind jumps from thought to thought. It was totally engrossing.
Ricochet, choreographed by Penny Saunders on the subject of the American cowboy, left me a little cold, largely because the choreography was not all that inspiring. There are only so many times when poses that mimic the position taken when riding a horse can generate interest. Similarly with lines of dancers walking through grassland. But the setting, especially the beautiful rural landscape, was a joy to look at, as was the filming so that the whole work looked as though it was showing on an old-fashioned television screen.
The Under Way (working title) is by Rena Butler and it too was choreographically uninspiring. It relied for impact more on camera angles, mime, colour changes and other cinematic techniques. I also found it hard to understand exactly what Butler was trying to say. There were references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Somewhere over the Rainbow from the film version of The Wizard of Oz, statues of prominent people (now considered racist?), racism itself, and other issues. One thing that made sense was the comment of the dancer who closed the work when he spoke about the things he could do. His skin was white and he finished with the sentence ‘I can breathe.’ But it was not clear to me how the rest related to that pertinent, contemporary comment. The Under Way needs a lot of work I think.
This is the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing anything by BalletX. It is a strong company and every one of the dancers has something special to offer. Stanley Glover is spectacular and I especially admired the work of Andrea Yorita for the expressiveness that she offered in every role, and for the way her movement fills the space around her body.
Access to the works of BalletX Beyond is via a subscription-based streaming platform, which is located at https://www.balletx.org/.
Michelle Potter, 17 December 2020
Featured image: Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff
Hot to Trot is an annual dance event in Canberra and is designed to give senior Quantum Leap dancers (who are mostly in their teens!) the opportunity to create their own choreography. Despite the issues that have plagued the arts community over the past several months, Hot to Trot 2020 went ahead in QL2’s black box space in Gorman Arts Centre, complete I should add with emphasis on the physical distancing of audience members. Two short films and eight live productions were presented.
What especially attracted me in this year’s program was the ability of the choreographers to use the performing space to advantage. They understood how to arrange their dancers, and any props they used, within the space, sometimes filling it, sometimes using corners, diagonals, upstage and downstage areas, and so forth. It reflects well on the QL2 Dance program where, from the beginning, young, prospective artists are taught stage techniques as well as dance technique.
But one work stood out for me—Danny Riley’s Similar, Same but Different. It was essentially a reflective work that examined the connections Riley sees as existing between him and his older brother, Jack, who is now a professional dancer and choreographer. In essence it was a replay of a work made by Jack Riley, which we saw on a film in the background. Danny Riley danced the same choreography for the most part and began by wearing a white jacket that his brother had worn—it was rather too long for him, which in itself spoke to us about those family connections. As the work progressed Danny Riley removed the white tuxedo and replaced it with a short, black jacket of his own—it fitted nicely! But, finally, that too was discarded and we understood that Danny Riley was his own man but with influences from family connections. It was a moving work that unfolded logically and clearly but that was complex in the ideas that it generated in our minds.
I loved that Riley didn’t see the need to use text as an essential addition to his work. Which brings me to the criticisms I have of this Hot to Trot program, and other such programs at QL2. I really wish that there could be a stronger realisation by these young choreographers that dance has the capacity to engage and comment within itself. It doesn’t need to have a text to which dancers react and which is meant (I think) to help the audience understand what is going on in the work. Speaking onstage during a performance is a particular skill and requires training. So often with QL2 productions, in which the spoken word is used, it is not easy to hear or understand what is being said. Not only does this reflect a lack of voice training, but also that the spoken text is often not well integrated with the score, which means that the words are drowned out by the score. And pretty much always, in my opinion, the spoken text seriously detracts from the dance aspects of the work.
The other issue that bothers me concerns the subjects young choreographers often choose as inspiration—subject matter that is quite abstract, or philosophical. Wayne McGregor or William Forsythe might be (and are) good at using conceptual issues as the basis for a dance work, and Tim Harbour at the Australian Ballet is also moving in this direction with particular skill, but they are experienced, professional artists who understand what dance can do best. It communicates through movement.
But to return to the Hot to Trot program itself, the other work I especially enjoyed was the short film by Natsuko Yonezawa, which opened the program. Called Flowering, it was filmed during rehearsals for the recent Leap into Chaos project by QL2 and focused on group movement. The raw footage was assembled and edited so we saw a kaleidoscope of images that recalled flowers growing in ever-changing, ever-expanding patterns. To me the film often looked like origami, being made or being made to move. It was quite beautiful and a great introduction to the program.
Other works on the program were created by Magnus Meagher, Alyse and Mia Canton, Courtney Tha, Lillian Cook, Pippi Keogh, Hollie Knowles, Rory Warne, and Sarah Long.
New York City Ballet’s recent digital offering was a remarkable collection of five short films by five different choreographers, filmed mostly around the Lincoln Center area. The films brought to the fore some fascinating issues about dance, about dance for film, and, during the discussion that followed each of the works, about how dancers are managing the pandemic facing us all. They also contained some personal reminders of that area and I could almost see, on one occasion, the apartment block where I lived on West 62nd Street while working at Lincoln Center. But, to the dance!
The reflecting pool that sits centre stage in the Plaza was used in a major way by two of the choreographers. Water Rite, a solo dance, was choreographed by Jamar Roberts from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre where he is a dancer and resident choreographer, and was performed by NYCB corps de ballet dancer, Victor Abreu. It was interesting to watch how the Henry Moore sculpture, an essential component of the pool, was deployed as part of the choreography. At times it formed a kind of frame for Abreu’s dancing, on other occasions it was a backdrop, and occasionally it was like a stationary prop. Choreographically the dance was full of energy with a lot of turning, which of course threw up the water.
But the big surprise came at the very end. As Abreu slowed down and it seemed like the end had arrived, suddenly we saw a long shot of the pool with Abreu and the sculpture in the centre and with six musicians and their instruments —two violins, a viola, a cello, a double bass and a flute—spread out in the pool. Yes, the sextet of musicians who had accompanied the dancer with Inflatedbyspinning by composer Ambrose Akinmusire, were standing in the pool too. A great ending.
The other work that used the pool in a major way was new song choreographed by Andrea Miller, founder of the Brooklyn-based company Gallim. It was performed by four dancers to Manifiesto by Chilean composer Victor Jara. The very dance-able folkloric feel to the music was taken up beautifully by Miller and especially well danced by all four dancers, but especially by Unity Phelan. She opened the dancing with a solo around a sculpture by Alexander Calder, which is situated just at the entrance to the Library for the Performing Arts. As with Water Rite, the sculpture became an integral element in the opening part of the dance. Phelan was soon joined by three other dancers and eventually they transitioned into the pool to dance with the Henry Moore sculpture where their glorious freedom of movement continued.
New song was my favourite of the five works and I loved the discussion afterwards in which Phelan talked about letting the water inform the movement.
Justin Peck’s work Thank you, New York, involved four dancers who appeared in four separate locations around New York—a deserted street, a terminal building, a rooftop and a park overlooking the river. Its focus moved back and forth between venues and its choreography was exceptionally varied with lots of turning steps, which featured strongly in the closing moments of the piece.
The most interesting aspect of Sidra Bell’s work Pixelation in a wave (within wires) was the comment about the inspiration behind the work: ‘The exquisitely tenuous correspondence between structural and human forms.’ It too took place around the Lincoln Center Plaza but choreographically it did not have the excitement of the works by Peck, Miller and Roberts. As for Pam Tanowitz’s Solo for Russell, for my liking it was too static and involved a lot of posing rather than moving.
Below is an image of the pool and the sculpture in Lincoln Center Plaza taken on a very wet, cold day in March 2011. How beautiful it was to see the site being brought to life by dance in 2020.
Michelle Potter, 8 November 2020
Featured image: Victor Abreu in a moment from Jamar Roberts’ Water Rite. Screenshot, New York City Ballet, 2020
The short film SHELTER, from California-based Reneff-Olson Productions, features dancers from across the world. It was made in response to the difficult situation in which performers find themselves at the moment during the COVID-19 crisis. The production company is headed by siblings Alexander and Valentina Reneff-Olson and, speaking of the making of SHELTER, Alexander Reneff-Olson said:
I wanted to bring attention to the current realities performing artists are facing during this time. Self-isolation has kept dancers from performing in conventional ways and traditional venues, but it hasn’t diminished their resilience, even in the face of these unprecedented times.
You might be surprised at the number of people who are involved in SHELTER who have strong connections with Australia and New Zealand. I was when it was suggested by a colleague from San Francisco that I take a look.
First up is perhaps Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet. After leaving Australia, Rowe has had a varied career, first with Houston Ballet, and then Nederlands Dans Theater and various other companies. She is now well into a career as a choreographer. Her work Remember, Mama, for Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2018 program Strength and Grace, was reviewed on this site by Jennifer Shennan. Read that review at this link. Rowe is currently choreographing a production of The Sleeping Beauty for Royal New Zealand Ballet. It is due to open in October (provided that is a possibility given current restrictions).
For SHELTER, Rowe worked with Garen Scribner, a New York-based actor, dancer and singer, on the choreography and the casting of the dancers who appear in the SHELTER. And, as Alexander Reneff-Olson has commented, Rowe also ‘selected and assigned sections of the choreography to each dancer and provided artistic feedback as the editing progressed’.
Australian Ballet principals, Amber Scott and Ty-King Wall, also appear, as does Artistic Director designate David Hallberg. Then there are Australians who no longer dance in Australia but are busy making exceptional careers elsewhere in the world. They include Benjamin Ella, currently a soloist with the Royal Ballet in London, and Jared Wright, at present a soloist with Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Royal New Zealand Ballet principal, Nadia Yanowksy, seen in the image above, is also featured in SHELTER.
The project grew from an earlier work called Hey Mami co-choreographed and performed by Rowe and Scribner in 2015. But the idea grew to include 26 dancers and, as Alexander Reneff-Olson explains:
Dani and Garen assigned specific time-codes from Hey Mami for each dancer to learn and film themselves performing, and they offered to virtually rehearse individually with any dancers who wanted to.
The individual segments were then edited by the Reneff-Olson team.
SHELTER also has some quite beautiful scenes shot on the stage of an empty San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Alexander Reneff-Olson explains:
The city and County of San Francisco gave about a 12 hour advance warning on the shelter-in-place order taking effect, and we used some of that time to capture what footage we could of Joseph Walsh [a principal with San Francisco Ballet] in the War Memorial Opera House, the home of San Francisco Ballet.
The full video can be viewed at this link where you will also find credits and a full list of the dancers who appear.
Michelle Potter, 20 May 2020
With thanks to Kate McKinney of San Francisco Ballet for putting me in touch with Alexander Reneff-Olson, and Renee Renouf Hall for suggesting I take a look at SHELTER.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
Michelle Potter, 29 April 2017
Featured image: Soko as Loïe Fuller in La danseuse. From the poster advertisement for the film.
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.1 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.3 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.
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).
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.
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.
Steven McRae in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody
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.
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.