Spring Dance 2011 (1). Pina: a celebration

Pina Bausch died quite suddenly in 2009. It was a shock to most in the dance world and was the occasion for an outpouring of recollections and writing of various kinds. Sydney’s Spring Dance program, now in its third year, made its contribution with almost its entire program devoted in some way or another to the legacy of Bausch. A major highlight was Pina: a celebration, two days of talks and films hosted by journalist and broadcaster Caroline Baum.

In terms of format, Pina: a celebration comprised three sessions, ‘Keys to your soul’, ‘Pina’s children’ and ‘Muscle memory’. Each was held in the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House and began with a conversation between Baum and her invited guests. On each occasion the conversation was followed by a film screening.

Although a major focus of the event was, to my mind anyway, on setting Bausch and her work within an Australian context, Bausch was absolutely central to the occasion and eclipsed most other aspects of the event. One of the unexpected highlights was a small snippet of footage shot in 1982 by Scott Hicks for a documentary on the 1982 Adelaide Festival at which Bausch and her company appeared. How warm and friendly Bausch seemed. And how cunningly she avoided the issue of how to describe her works by telling instead an amusing story about Alfred Hitchcock.

We saw Bausch again almost forty years later in  ‘Dancing Dreams’, a documentary made in 2010 by Anne Linsel and Rainer Hoffmann on the creation of a new version of Kontakthof, a work Bausch first made in 1978 and which was seen in Australia in Adelaide in 1982.  

In this new production Bausch used teenagers over the age of fourteen as her entire cast. Bausch watched rehearsals for this show we would occasionally see a smile break out on her now lined but always expressive face. There was again a sense of warmth and tenderness from the woman who was once accused of being a ‘theatre terrorist’ and making works that were the ‘raw pulp of abuse’.

The other two films were Pina Bausch made, again by Anne Linsel, in 2006, and Life in Movement made in 2010 by Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde on the work of Tanja Liedtke. While both offered much insight, and Life in Movement in particular is an important addition to our knowledge of Liedtke’s creativity, both were at times a little subjective making them seem a tad too long. Not so with Dancing Dreams where the spoken words were forthright and honest, where the cast was able to be self critical and the young people able to analyse the role they were playing in the creative process, not to mention the effect that process was having on them. It was very refreshing,

In the conversations with Baum, three of the five guests were Australians whose work had been influenced in one way or another by Bausch: Michael Whaites, Kate Champion and Shaun Parker. What instantly stood out was the sense of objectivity they were able to bring out in their comments and answers to Baum’s questions. After the reverential tone of Bausch’s dancers in the Linsel film Pina Bausch, it was invigorating to hear something a little more down to earth. Whaites in particular, the only one of the three who had worked in close proximity to Bausch, spoke of the need to maintain just a little distance in dealing with life in Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. And on another Australian note, Dancing Dreams afforded us the pleasure of watching Jo Ann Endicott, an Australian dancer who has been with Bausch since 1973, in her role as co-rehearsal director (along with Bénédicte Billiet) for the new production of Kontakthof.

Alain Platel and Lutz Förster were Baum’s other guests. Both were in Sydney for performances of Platel’s Out of context: for Pina, which I wrote about last year and in which Förster was a performer.*

An unexpected (for me) addition to the program was a brief public conversation with photographer William Yang, whose images of two Bausch works, Kontakthof and 1980, taken at the 1982 Adelaide Festival were on view in the foyer. Yang, who admitted he was not really a great dance-goer, likened Bausch to Chekhov. ‘She understands the human condition’, he said.

Michelle Potter, 10 September 2011

*Platel was a guest on ‘Mornings with Margaret’ on 31 August 2011. His interview is available as a podcast. (update: Podcast no longer available)


Pina. A film by Wim Wenders

Pina, shot in 3-D and directed by the acclaimed German artist Wim Wenders, has been touted by many as showing the way forward in terms of filming dance, giving back to dance the physicality that it apparently loses in regular filming. But I’m not sure that many of the reviewers who have hailed it as a breakthrough have actually sat in a theatre and watched a performance by Pina Bausch’s company, or any other dance company for that matter.

For me the most interesting review to date has been by Australian playwright and commentator Louis Nowra. Writing in the August edition of The Monthly, Nowra astutely says, amongst other things, that the scenes shot out of doors are ‘[drained] of their claustrophobic power’, and that ‘the uterine universe that Bausch created onstage is dissipated’. His concluding statement is: ‘For all its 3-D marvels, the film finally doesn’t do her work justice’. And it doesn’t.

Pina is not really a documentary. Nor is it really a dance film. It sits uneasily between the two. It shows sequences from four major Bausch works, Rite of Spring, Café Mueller, Kontakthof and Vollmond, in most cases danced by the current company. It contains some archival footage, although not as much as one might have hoped to see. It contains solos performed outdoors in locations around Wuppertal, the German city where the company, led by Pina Bausch and now since Bausch’s death in 2009 by Dominique Mercy and Robert Stürm, has resided for almost four decades. It shows Bausch’s current dancers talking about their experiences with the company and their thoughts about what it was like working with Bausch.

Company dancers now, as they have been across the history of the company, are great movers. No doubting that. They are also articulate about their experiences and their emotional involvement in the act of working with Bausch. But what horrors are perpetrated by the 3-D technology! The scenic space in which the dancers perform is often far too deep and distorts the dancers. They often look far too small and far too thin. They don’t inhabit the space as living human beings but as kinds of puppet figures. We also, especially in footage of Rite of Spring, get some hideous close-up images (3-D close-up) of faces—images that we never see in performance, and that we are really never meant to see. Distance in the theatre has a place.

Also having a place in the theatre and often missing in Pina is the intimate contact between performers that develops in the enclosed space of a theatre stage. In the deep 3-D recesses, dancers seem to be separated or disengaged from each other, from the props and indeed from the performing space itself, not to mention from the viewer—and I don’t consider having a face thrust straight into mine courtesy of 3-D an engagement with the viewer. How much more engaging is the archival footage (not filmed in 3-D) of Bausch herself performing in Café Mueller where we see her interacting with the space around her body, her personal space, as all great dancers are able to do, rather than seeing her placed within a technological extension of space.

Going back to Louis Nowra, he is absolutely right that the very inward looking, almost narcissistic approach that seems necessary for the creation of a work by Pina Bausch is lost when the works (or parts of them) are placed out of doors. In fact for me the most interesting part of the footage shot out of doors was seeing the Schwebebahn, Wuppertal’s suspended monorail system that, as far as I am aware, is a somewhat over-engineered rail system that has never been replicated elsewhere.

Worse than that, as far as I am concerned, is that the works lose their inherent, dancerly theatricality when shot in 3-D.

Michelle Potter, 20 August 2011

Dancing across borders. A film by Anne Bass

For two months in early 2007 I worked with Anne Bass on the initial stages of what would eventually become Dancing across borders, a documentary film on the career to date of Sokvannara Sar, a dancer who grew up in Cambodia and who is now dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. The film has been hugely successful since its release in 2009 and the website that documents its production, and that also gives contextual material about other initiatives including the Khmer Dance Project, is well worth a look.

Michelle Potter, 8 April 2010

Sydney friends of the Ballets Russes. Dr Ewan Murray-Will

Dr Ewan Murray-Will (1899-1970) was by profession a dermatologist with a practice in Macquarie Street, Sydney. He studied medicine at Sydney University graduating in 1923 and followed that initial study with further work in Vienna and London. He was honorary dermatologist to a number of Sydney hospitals including Sydney Hospital, St Vincent’s Hospital and the Coast Hospital (later Prince Henry Hospital). Murray-Will also served in World War II in the Middle East and later in North Queensland and was awarded an MBE at the conclusion of the War. He was also a passionate supporter of the arts and a friend and patron of the Ballets Russes dancers who visited Australia between 1936 and 1940.

His home movies documenting performances by, and weekend activities of the dancers of the visiting Ballets Russes companies have been known in Australian dance circles since the late 1990s when they were donated to the National Film and Sound Archive. Some of this remarkable footage was used in The Ballets Russes in Australia: an avalanche of dancing, produced in 1999 by the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Library of Australia. Some was also screened in a compilation of archival footage that accompanied the National Gallery of Australia’s 1999 exhibition of Ballets Russes costumes, From Russia with love.

Perhaps the most engaging of the footage is that shot on Bungan Beach, a beach north of Sydney that even today remains relatively isolated. It is hidden from the main road and accessible only by a walking track. It was at Bungan Beach that Murray-Will regularly rented out a beach house and also regularly invited a number of the dancers to visit on weekends. Much of the beach footage is filmed in slow motion and often shows the dancers demonstrating particular steps or lifts: Paul Petroff seemed to delight in performing grands jetés en tournant the length of the beach and Tamara Toumanova and Petroff enjoyed demonstrating the now well-known ‘presages lift’ from the slow movement of Massine’s Les presages. Other material shows the Ballets Russes dancers performing excerpts from their repertoire. A beautiful clip shows Nina Golovina in a scarlet swimming costume with her long dark hair falling over her shoulders dancing with Anton Vlassoff in an excerpt from the Bluebird pas de deux from Aurora’s Wedding. Some of Murray-Will’s footage, including the ‘Bungan Ballet’ a watery spoof created by four of the dancers, is available online from the National Film and Sound Archive’s australianscreen site:

But Ewan Murray-Will also bought art and moved in those Sydney circles where contemporary art was promoted and where both developments in the visual arts and the activities of the Ballets Russes were seen as part of the same attitude to contemporary creative endeavour. Murray-Will was, for example, a friend of publisher and patron of the arts Sydney Ure Smith, as Ure Smith’s collection of letters in the Mitchell Library in Sydney indicates. He was also close to Ballets Russes dancer Hélène Kirsova, whose second husband was Peter Bellew, first secretary of the Sydney branch of the Contemporary Art Society and in part responsible for securing Sidney Nolan’s commission to design Icare for Australian performances by the Original Ballet Russe in 1940. Kirsova autographed to Murray-Will a photograph of her and Igor Youskevitch in Le Carnaval with the words: ‘To Doctor Murray-Will, With my appreciation of your interest in the arts I am devoted to, Helene Kirsova, 1937’.

Hélène Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch in Le Carnaval, 1937. Photographer unknown. National Library of Australia

Ewan Murray-Will’s contribution to our knowledge of the Ballets Russes aesthetic as it was understood in Australia also includes that he collected, and then bequeathed to major institutions, paintings and drawings with a connection to the Ballets Russes. At least two designs by Alexandre Benois for Petrouchka were bequeathed by Murray-Will to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They are a costume design for ‘Un jeune artisan ivrogne’ (A drunken young workman), a character that perhaps never appeared on stage in productions of Petrouchka, and a set design for ‘La chambre du nègre’ (The Negro’s bedroom), which is a variation on the better-known set for that scene in the ballet.

But perhaps more pertinent in the context of the influence the Ballets Russes had on Australian artists are those items bequeathed to the National Gallery of Australia by Murray-Will that are currently on display in the exhibition Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They include three oils on canvas painted in Paris between 1913 and 1920: Peleus and Thetis, The prophetic nymphs and Poseidon and Amphitrite. Any Ballets Russes influence on Bunny, best described perhaps as an expatriate Australian, came of course from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes rather than from the touring companies that Australians saw in the years following Diaghilev’s death in 1929. The colours of Bunny’s palette in all three paintings recall the juxtapositions for which Léon Bakst became famous with his costume and set designs for Diaghilev. And the swirl of Amphitrite’s hair in Poseidon and Amphitrite, which was owned at one stage by Edouard Borovansky, recalls the decorative elements of flowing scarves and other items that feature in Bakst’s costume designs.

The most interesting of the three paintings, however, is Peleus and Thetis and, while Bunny’s colour juxtapositions may be a result of the influence of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century European artists, including Paul Gaugin, rather than, or as well as Baskt, there are nevertheless clear references to the Ballets Russes in this painting. Bunny painted Peleus with her feet and knees turned to the side as if on a frieze. Her body, however, is facing the front although her head is in profile. Such a pose clearly recalls the choreography for the nymphs in Afternoon of a Faun (1912), Vaslav Njinsky’s groundbreaking work for Diaghilev. Moreover, the angular position of Peleus’ arms, especially the way her left elbow is bent into a triangular shape as she resists Thetis’ advances, is similar to the arm positions of Nijinsky and the leading nymph in Faun as the two engage with each other before the nymph drops her scarf and flees. Even the hairstyle of Peleus recalls the wigs worn by the nymphs in the ballet, which closely fitted the head like a skull cap but had long strands of curls emerging at the back from the nape of the neck.

Ewan Murray-Will is reported to have been a reserved man. He left, however, a legacy to the arts world whose significance is probably yet to be fully explored. That legacy is largely a result of his exploits as an amateur filmmaker. But his activities as a collector of paintings and drawings, especially as they elucidate further the activities and aesthetic of the Ballets Russes in Australia and on Australians, are also of significance.

Postscript: Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 21 February 2010 and then travels to Melbourne and Adelaide.

© Michelle Potter, 27 November 2009


  • Australia Dancing. ‘Dr Ewan Murray-Will’ as archived at this link
  • Benois, Alexandre-Nikolayevich. ‘Jeune artisan ivrogne’, costume study for Petrouchka, 1936, watercolour, gouache and pen and ink over pencil sketch, 32.2 x 24.8 cm sheet (irreg), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Bequest of Dr Ewan Murray-Will 1971, 11.1971
  • Benois, Alexandre-Nikolayevich. ‘The Negro’s Bedroom’, set design for Petrouchka, 1931, drawing, gouache and pen and ink over pencil sketch, 25.3 x 36.2 cm image/sheet, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Bequest of Dr Ewan Murray-Will 1971, 12.1971
  • Edwards, Deborah. Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2009).
  • Potter, Michelle. ‘Mutual fascination: the Ballets Russes in Australia 1936-1940’. Brolga 11 (December 1999), pp. 7-15.
  • Turnbull, Clive. The Art of Rupert Bunny (Sydney: Ure Smith, [1949?])