The current corona virus situation has given us many opportunities to see streamed productions from many of the world’s best companies. Some have been thrilling, and have been works, or have involved casts, that I am unlikely to see outside this streaming arrangement. One or two, however, have left me wondering.
The Australian Ballet’s decision to stream its 1986 production of Giselle was an odd one I thought. In the thirty-four years since 1986 much has changed in terms of filming techniques and in what we expect from dancers. I was underwhelmed in particular by the poor quality of the footage and I was not a fan of the characterisations of the leading characters, except perhaps by that of Paul de Masson as Hilarion. Techniques are stronger now as well.
It was also touted as Maina Gielgud’s production, which it no doubt was even it was staged by Colin Peasley. But Gielgud had been director of the company for just a few years in 1986 and, having seen more recent productions that have involved her input, most recently in 2018 but also in 2015, her production has grown in so many ways. Could we not have had something closer to 2020? The 1986 recording was a poor choice.
Then there was Smuin Ballet’s staging of Stanton Welch’s Indigo. I have often wondered about Indigo made originally for Houston Ballet in 1999. Its title seemed curious: how do you make a ballet about a colour? Well of course the title referred to the colour of the costumes, although that is also something of a curiosity to my mind. That aside, I was really disappointed by Welch’s choreography. It was filled with jerky staccato movements and I longed for a bit of lyrical relief. It also seemed to sit awkwardly, I thought, on the physiques of the Smuin dancers. But at least now I have seen it and needn’t muse about the title any more.
Australian activity in New Zealand
It is interesting to note that two Australian choreographers are to have their work performed in the coming months by Royal New Zealand Ballet, which will shortly return to full-scale performing. Alice Topp’s Aurum will be part of a mixed bill program called Venus Rising. The program is due to take place in August/September and will also feature works by Twyla Tharp, Andrea Schermoly, and Sarah Foster-Sproull.
See these links for my reviews of Aurum: Melbourne (2018), Sydney (2019). In both cases Aurum was part of a triple bill called Verve.
Later, in October through to December, Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet and now making a name for herself as a choreographer, will present her new Sleeping Beauty, also for Royal New Zealand Ballet.
The closing date for nominations for the 2019 and 2020 Australian Dance Awards has been extended. These two sets of awards cover work presented in 2018 and 2019. The closing date is now 20 July. For further information and to nominate follow this link.
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.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Strength & Grace program consists of four choreographies by women invited to mark the 125th anniversary of women achieving suffrage, with Kate Sheppard and her many New Zealand followers having led the world in that. It’s Sheppard’s face on our $10 bill, she is honoured in many parts of the country, particularly Christchurch her home town, and is considered by many to be New Zealand’s second most influential person, so a good choice by RNZB to allow choreographies to grow from her inspiration.
Overall, each of the four works has considerable strengths, but it is the dancers’ outstanding performances of commitment and calibre that made the night. I consider one of the works would be a true standout in any context or themed season, but each of them will have appealed to one section or another of the audience. It was in fact easy to find colleagues and friends, both younger and older, who had chosen a different favourite. Thankfully it is not a competition.
The first piece, So To Speak, by American choreographer Penny Saunders, explored the domestic relationships within a family. Kirby Selchow and Loughlan Prior, as Mother and Father, used striking gestures of clarity and fine timing in a highly effective opening motif, around a table downstage left, though the work became somewhat diffused when a large chorus-like cast entered. The use of pointe shoes for the Mothers but soft shoes for the Daughters, with close to identical dress for both generations of women, were subtle design choices lost on many I suspect. Dramatic opportunity to express the tensions between parents and children was lightly referenced, but the music of four different composers made for a somewhat meandering choreographic structure. Nonetheless the work made its mark and the performances were strong.
The second piece, Despite the Loss of Small Detail, by New Zealander Sarah Foster-Sproull, was sharp and spunky, and held great appeal for younger audience members. Eden Mulholland provided a lively percussive accompaniment, and the strength of movement delivered by the dancers certainly matched it. Abigail Boyle was a compelling central figure, supported by a somewhat enigmatic group of dancers. One memorable sequence had them stabbing the stage using pointe shoes as weapons, in a trope reminiscent of Akram Khan’s recent Giselle. The fashion-led design choice of costuming brought whimsy to what was nonetheless a serious declaration of independence.
The third work, Remember, Mama, by Australian Danielle Rowe, was to my mind the clearest work overall in both structure and theme. Although it also used four different composers, there was a distinct adjustment within the choreography at each section which made for welcome coherence to its unfolding. Nadia Yanowsky gave a strongly felt performance as The Mother, relating to The Son at various ages played by three different dancers. Shaun James Kelly always dances with quality and was a sparkling delight as the young child, using Mozart’s Ah! Vous Dirais-je Maman to great effect. Fabio lo Giudice was a sultry teenager, but Paul Mathews danced the adult son with a deep empathy and tenderness for his mother that will have touched many. He is a dancer with the intuition of an actor for how to portray character, and is one of the company’s real strengths. The group of men seemed like soldiers lost to the call of war, perhaps. The group of women fought as hard as any soldiers.
The fourth work, Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly, took as reference one of the pamphlets Sheppard had produced in her stalwart campaigning years, projected as text behind the dancers. (That raised laughs among the audience but would have seemed anything but comic 125 years ago). Of the three composers used, the richest and most eloquent dance music of the whole evening was the Folie d’Espagne of Marin Marais, in a recording by Jordi Savall (the highlight performer of Wellington’s Arts Festival earlier this year). That drew a strong response from the cast of eight women, with particularly galvanised and striking performances from Mayu Tanigaito, Madeleine Graham and Kirby Selchow. Despite many standout performances of the program, a following solo by Selchow gave her a true claim to being the dancer of the evening. The work was at its strongest at that point and might well have finished there, in orbit.
So overall, this is a program of strong choreographic ventures, a few unusual costume design choices, and effective lighting throughout by Andrew Lees. There’s a mosaic of different music compositions (12 in all across four works) and I know that can pose a distracting challenge for musicians and music-followers who tend to stay away because of that. Most memorably there is stunning dancing from a pedigree company that is half the age of the Suffragettes’ achievements.
Afterthoughts: The sightlines in the Opera House are quite different from those in the St. James Theatre where the company usually performs, and that needs to be borne in mind for choreographic staging and video projections, both of which were compromised on several occasions. (My two immediate neighbours left at half-time since their view was seriously affected, and the seats were not classed as restricted viewing at the box office). The sound system is also perhaps settling in, and music volumes were at times uncomfortably loud.
This Wellington season of only two performances, and no tour to other centres, has left many dance followers further afield hoping for a future opportunity to see this program. The company website lists “Details Soon” for the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Awards towards the end of the year, now in its fourth year, so they may be planning to attend that season instead. New choreography brings fresh blood, and these stalwart dancers always perform, new work and old, as though lives depended on it. JS
In mid-March I had the pleasure of meeting up in San Francisco with Luke Ingham, former soloist with the Australian Ballet. Ingham and his wife, Danielle Rowe, left Houston Ballet in 2012 to take up other offers. Rowe went to join Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague and Ingham scored a soloist’s contract with San Francisco Ballet. Ingham has already had some great opportunities in San Francisco and my story on his activities is scheduled to appear in the June issue of Dance Australia in the magazine’s series Dancers without borders. Watch out for it.
Walter Gore’s The Crucifix
I have always been fascinated by a photograph taken by Walter Stringer of the final scene from Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix. Alan Brissenden, in his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances, reproduces the photograph on page 53, and a print is part of the National Library’s Walter Stringer Collection. Brissenden gives a brief account of the storyline and the reception the ballet received when it was staged in Australia by the National Theatre Ballet in 1952.
I have just recently been making a summary of an oral history interview I recorded with Athol Willoughby in February and his recollections of performing in The Crucifix tell us a little more, especially about the final scene, and provide, furthermore, a wonderful example of the value of oral history. Willoughby played the role of one of the soldiers who accompanies the executioner, played by Walter Gore, to the scaffold. He says of the opening performance:
‘The scene changed to a huge [stake] with a lot of fake wood around it … Wally came in carrying Paula … Her hands were tied … and he lifted her onto the [stake]. Just as the symphony ended he picked up a torch—none of us had seen the end of the ballet, even at the dress rehearsal the end of the ballet hadn’t been choreographed and we didn’t know what was going to happen—he picked up a flaming torch and threw it at the pyre of wood. The minute he threw the torch at her the wood lit up, the symphony finished and Paula screamed … It was so powerful.’
The Rite of Spring: an animated graphical score
I have just received the following note and link from composer Stephen Malinowski: ‘The last few months, I’ve been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This week I completed the first part. Enjoy!
Pacific Northwest Ballet
In my review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s recent program I mentioned that the show I saw was only the second time I had seen the company in performance. Well that is not quite true. I had the good fortune to see the company in 2007 in Seattle when the program consisted of George Balanchine’s La Sonambula, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement. Certainly a very interesting program.
A recent visit to the United States saw me in Houston, Texas, where I was able to have a look at Houston Ballet’s new premises and enjoyed being shown around by Stanton Welch. And there is more than one Aussie at Houston Ballet these days. Below is the text of a story published on 26 November 2011 in The Canberra Times under the heading ‘An Aussie in Houston’.
—Stanton Welch is in a buoyant mood as he shows me around Houston Ballet’s stunning new home in downtown Houston, Texas. Melbourne-born Welch has been artistic director of Houston Ballet, the fourth largest ballet company in the United States, for eight years. The company moved into its six-storey headquarters in February of this year and the new studios—nine of them—are huge with high ceilings and lots of windows letting in the beautiful Texan light. In some, children are taking a ballet class. In others, company members are rehearsing for the forthcoming production of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker and for the annual gala, Jubilee of Dance. The building hums with activity.
Welch, a young-looking 42 year old, is the elder son of Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch, former principal dancers with both the Borovansky and the Australian Ballets. Both also worked with Sydney Dance Company and both are teachers of renown. Their second son, Damien, retired quite recently from his position as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Together the four of them are familiarly called the “Royal Family of Australian Ballet” such is their collective status in the Australian dance world. Damien is also currently in Houston to stage his brother’s production of Cinderella for Houston Ballet next year. And indeed the month of November is something of a family time. Jones is also visiting. “Mum comes over a couple of times a year. I usually try to get her to do a bit of teaching while she’s here,” Welch says with a grin.
Welch was a late starter in the ballet world: he took his first lessons only when 16. But there was no looking back after that. He choreographed his first piece, Hades, during the first year of his dance training in 1986 and it won several eisteddfod prizes. By 1989 he had joined the Australian Ballet and in 1990 received his first choreographic commission, which resulted in A Time to Dance for the Dancers Company of the Australian Ballet. He went on to make his first major piece, Of Blessed Memory, for the main company in 1991. By 1995 he was a resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet and remains so, from a distance, to this day. The extent of his choreographic output by now is remarkable and includes works for major companies around the world. He was appointed artistic director of Houston Ballet in 2003 and for the moment he seems firmly entrenched in Houston, largest city in the state of Texas.
“What I love about working here”, he says “is that the dancers are so energised. There is absolutely no complacency. We are so lucky with audiences too. They are very adventurous and brave when it comes to new work, which is great for a choreographer. Our subscriptions continued to grow even during the recession.”
But as I look into the studios from the viewing windows I am struck by the fact that there are Australians in a number of the studios. Ballet master Steven Woodgate is busy rehearsing a large number of dancers for a group scene in Nutcracker. A Churchill Fellowship awardee for 2000, Woodgate retired from the Australian Ballet, where he was senior artist for several years, and took up the position of ballet master at Houston in 2004, the year after Welch’s arrival.
In another studio Luke Ingham, who grew up on a farm in Mount Gambier, South Australia, is rehearsing for his first princely role, that of the Prince in Nutcracker. Ingham has been with the company since July 2011 and has just toured to New York with Houston Ballet where he also took the opportunity to catch up with four of his former Australian Ballet colleagues. They were in New York to dance and promote the Australian Ballet’s New York visit in 2012.
Ingham will be dancing in Houston’s Nutcracker with his partner in life Danielle Rowe, a former Australian Ballet principal who joined Houston Ballet early in 2011. He is looking forward to the occasion. “It’s great to work with someone you love,” he says. “I love being out there on stage with Dani.”
In her relatively short time in Houston to date Rowe has already made a name for herself. A dazzling dancer and winner of a 2010 Helpmann Award as best female dancer in a dance or physical theatre production, Rowe has so far danced leading roles in Houston productions of two major classics, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. In Giselle, a production staged by yet another Australian artist, dancer and coach Ai-Gul Gaisina, critics spoke glowingly of Rowe’s performance as “gossamer-spirited.” and noted that she moved like “a tissue in a breeze.”
There have been Australians in the Houston company for a while. Mary McKendry, who was brought up and learnt to dance in Rockhampton, Queensland, was a principal dancer with Houston Ballet in the 1980s when a young man from Mao’s China defected while on an exchange visit to Houston Ballet. His name was Li Cunxin and McKendry eventually married him. They moved to Australia where Li would go on to have a stellar career with the Australian Ballet, write his best selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer and eventually become a stockbroker in Melbourne. Li often returns to Houston and did so earlier this month to be honoured for his achievements by the Houston-based organisation Dance of Asian America.
What is it that draws Australian dancers to Houston Ballet? Welch believes that it is the varied repertoire that the company offers. His dancers get the opportunity to perform in works that he creates himself, works by acclaimed American and European choreographers and both old and new takes on the classics. Danielle Rowe suggests the same. Along with a positive work ethic, it was what she was looking forward to most of all when she left the Australian Ballet for a new career in Houston. Ingham couldn’t resist the thought though that, with his farming background, there might be the added attraction of the Texan cowboy culture! But whatever it is, the vibes are good at Houston Ballet. Welch strides through his new domain laughing and joking and generously accommodating my every request.—
And in addition to those Australians mentioned above, former Australian Ballet dancer Andrew Murphy is an instructor at Houston Ballet’s academy. Murphy is married to Sabrina Lenzi, ballet mistress of Houston Ballet II, a company similar in outlook and mission to the Australian Ballet’s Dancers Company.
Elsewhere on this website I made a comment that referred to Graeme Murphy’s The Silver Rose, which I saw just recently towards the end of its Sydney season by the Australian Ballet. My comment was in response to what I thought was an excellent argument about the new magazine Fjord Review, which also brought up other issues relating to leadership and marketing of dance and dancers and in particular to perceived problems with Australian Ballet dancers ‘nailing the right atmosphere’ in their performances. My comment in its turn generated another comment picking up on The Silver Rose. All the comments are available at this link but I am reposting the last one below.
I was hoping Michelle would open a thread about The Silver Rose. I seem to be in a minority in thinking that Murphy acquitted himself well in the enormous task he set himself and his designer in taking on a danced version of Der Rosenkavalier.
Well, I was very disappointed with The Silver Rose. I thought the final trio for the Marschallin, Sophie and Octavian was brilliantly choreographed and well performed by Danielle Rowe, Amber Scott and Luke Ingham. It was a moment of nostalgia and in true Murphy fashion all the yearning, wistfulness and regret contained in that particular emotion came through in the choreography. But, there wasn’t all that much else in it for me. The first act, which had to establish the characters, cried out for words or surtitles or program notes that lit up in the dark, anything. The complications of who was who just couldn’t be established through choreographic means. I also found the pantomime of the hairdresser, couturier and make-up artist so over the top that it made me cringe. Personally I like my pantomime to be a little more subtle, and I don’t think that’s a contradiction in terms.
But the point I was making in the comment posted earlier was that I didn’t think the dancers of the Australian Ballet, with a few exceptions, really got the feel of Murphy’s brand of choreography on this occasion. There were so many moments when they simply looked awkward. It reminded me of Carolyn Brown, that great, great Cunningham dancer from the mid decades of the twentieth century, who said that when the Cunningham company went to watch Cunningham’s equally great, great work Summerspace performed by New York City Ballet (in 1966) that they all sat in the auditorium and cried.
Por vos muero, Scuola di ballo & Dyad 1929, 21 August to 1 September 2009, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, MelbourneJ
The Australian Ballet finally hit the jackpot! In the dying months of its four year long celebration of the Ballets Russes, Wayne McGregor arrived in Melbourne and created his Dyad 1929—a work that is truly in the adventurous spirit of the Diaghilev period.
Dyad 1929 is made for a cast of twelve dancers, six women and six men. It is danced against a white backcloth, patterned all over with regular rows of black dots, which extends to a floorcloth. A thin horizontal bar of acid yellow light is raised and lowered in the extreme downstage area during the piece. Occasionally yellow light floods onto the backcloth. This ‘stage concept’ is by McGregor and the work’s lighting designer Lucy Carter. The dancers are costumed by Moritz Junge in close-fitting leotards, or all-overs, or trunks and tops in various combinations and patterns of white, black and fawn. The overall design concept is startling and exhilarating, as is the music—Double Sextet by Steve Reich.
But it is the choreography that lifts Dyad 1929 beyond the startling to the brave and the challenging. There is a matter-of-factness in the way the dancers enter and leave the stage. A la William Forsythe they walk, simply but decisively, on and off. Once on, however, their bodies become an experimental field. They are pushed, pulled and stretched. They crumple, bend and fold. Sometimes the movements look hard-edged. At other times they look more curvaceous. And what seems quite extraordinary is that often movements that are commonplace in a particular situation are put into completely new context. A stretching exercise commonly done at the barre becomes part of a duet, for example. And again extraordinarily, McGregor occasionally follows a twisted movement with a classical, centred one so that the eye can better discern what is central to each.
Standout dancers in two viewings were Lana Jones, cool and poised in a duet with Tzu-Chao Chou, and Danielle Rowe, more softly sinuous in a duet with Adam Bull—Jones a diamond, Rowe a pearl, both using their prodigious technical capacity to dance this audacious and demanding choreography. They dance purposefully, but also with what borders on ecstasy so intently and intensely do they articulate the choreography. This is what dancers crave: to be challenged to use their bodies to do the seemingly impossible, and thus to understand more about their art form.
This triple bill with the overarching name of ‘Concord’ opened with Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero. Por vos remains a compelling work swinging between a stripped back look at human relationships, which we see in the three duets that open the work, to highly theatrical moments as in the scene in which six men in brocade cloaks swirl across the stage swinging censers that fill the air with incense. Daniel Gaudiello gave a particularly strong performance. It highlighted all the remarkable nuances of Duato’s choreography.
The third work on the program, also part of the Ballets Russes project, was a new production of Léonide Massine’s 1933 work, Scuola di ballo, in this case choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky adhered to the narrative and choreographic structure of Massine’s work but, in terms of movement, the work looked more like a homage to August Bournonville. Ratmansky emphasised beaten footwork for the men and his pas de deux contained very few lifts, especially big overhead lifts. In typical Bournonville style the man for the most part danced alongside his partner. This was especially noticeable in the pas de deux between the characters Rosina and Carlino, which was prettily danced by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in one cast and Danielle Rowe and Ty King-Wall in another.
Scuola‘s comic elements were a hit with the audience but I am not convinced that attempting to reproduce what was clearly not Massine’s best ballet was a worthwhile endeavour. What it did was remind me that not all ballets from the Ballets Russes era (whether from the Diaghilev period or from that of his followers) are worth recalling. Restaging or reproducing works as museum or celebratory pieces only works if the original was a piece of major importance in the first place. I don’t believe that Scuola di ballo was. Ballet has moved on. Thankfully.
And thankfully there are choreographers like Wayne McGregor to show that the way ahead can be as adventurous as it was under Diaghilev.
Footnote: Showing in Melbourne at the same time as ‘Concord’ is an exhibition documenting the career of Salvador Dali. Included in the show, which is at the National Gallery of Victoria, is film footage of Massine’s 1939 collaboration with Dali on the ballet Bacchanale for Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It makes an interesting comparison with Scuola di ballo and comments on Bacchanale and its reception by Frederic Franklin, one of the original cast, are easily found via any search engine and are eminently readable.