Dance diary. January 2021

  • Garry Stewart to leave Australian Dance Theatre

I have to admit to being slightly taken aback when I heard that Garry Stewart would relinquish his directorship of Australian Dance Theatre at the end of 2021. He leaves behind an incredible legacy I think. My first recollection of his choreography goes back to the time in the 1990s when he was running a company called Thwack! I recall in particular a production called Plastic Space, which was shown at the 1999 Melbourne Festival. It examined our preoccupation with aliens and I wrote in The Canberra Times, ‘[Stewart’s] dance-making is risky, physically daring and draws on a variety of sources….’ I also wrote program notes for that Melbourne Festival and remarked on three preoccupations I saw in his work. They were physical virtuosity, thematic abstraction and technology as a choreographic tool. Most of Stewart’s work that I have seen with ADT has continued to embody those concepts.

Although since the 1990s I have seen fewer Stewart works than I would have liked, the three that have engaged me most of all have been G (2008), Monument (2013), which I regret was never seen outside Canberra, and The Beginning of Nature (2018), which won the 2018 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Company.

At this stage I don’t know where life will lead Garry Stewart after 2021 but I wish him every success. His contribution to dance in Australia has been exceptional.

  • Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet Digital Season

The last time I saw Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, made in 1963 for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, was in 2018. Then I had the good fortune to see Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli leading a strong Royal Ballet cast. It was in fact the standout performance on a triple bill. I also remember seeing a remarkable performance by Sylvia Guillem as Marguerite when the Royal visited Australia in 2002, although I was not so impressed with her partners. (I saw two performances with different dancers taking the male role on each of those occasions).

Zenaida Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet, 2017. From the Royal Ballet website

The streamed performance offered by the Royal Ballet recently featured Zenaida Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle. It was filmed in 2017 and was Yanowsky’s farewell performance with the Royal Ballet. She is a strong technician and a wonderful actor and her performance was exceptional in both those areas. Yet, I was somewhat disappointed. Bolle was perhaps not her ideal partner. Yanowsky is quite tall and seemed at times to overpower Bolle. But in addition I found her take on the role a little cold. She was extraordinarily elegant but I missed a certain emotional, perhaps even guileless quality that I saw in Ferri and Guillem.

  • La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet

The Royal Ballet is once more streaming a performance of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, this time featuring Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in the leading roles. But, as I was investigating the streaming conditions and watching the trailer, I came across a twelve minute mini-documentary about the ballet, focusing especially on its English qualities. It is a really entertaining and informative twelves minutes and includes footage of the beautifully groomed white pony, called Peregrine, who has a role in the ballet. We see him entering the Royal Opera House via the stage door and climbing the stairs to the stage area. Isn’t there a adage that says never share the stage with children or animals? Well Peregrine steals the show in this documentary! But there are many other moments of informative and lively discussion about the ballet and the documentary is worth watching. Link below.

  • The Australian Ballet on the International Stage. Lisa Tomasetti’s new book

Lisa Tomasetti is a photographer whose work I have admired for some time. She has a great eye for catching an unusual perspective on whatever she photographs. Late in 2020 she issued a book of photographs of the Australian Ballet on various of its international tours, including visits to London, New York (and elsewhere in the United States), Beijing, Tokyo and Paris. This book of exceptional images is available from Tomasetti’s website at this link.

  • Coming in April: The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet has been a long-time in production but it will be released in April. The book is extensive in scope with a wide list of contributors including scholars, critics and choreographers from across the world. Here is a link to information about the publication. The list of contents, extracted from the link, is at the end of this post.

  • Sir Robert Cohan (1925-2021)

I was sorry to hear that Sir Robert Cohan had died recently. He made a huge impact on contemporary dance and its development in the United Kingdom, and his influence on many Australian dancers and choreographers, including Sydney-based artists Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser, was exceptional. An obituary in The Guardian, written by Jane Pritchard, is at this link.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

The Canberra Times recently published a review of Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in its Saturday supplement, Panorama. The review was written by Emeritus Professor of Art History at the Australian National University, Sasha Grishin. Here is the review as it appeared in the print run of the paper on 16 January 2021.

The review is also available online at this link and is perhaps easier to read there.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2021

Featured image: Garry Stewart. Photo: © Meaghan Coles (www.nowandthenphotography.com.au)

Photos by www.facebook.com/meaghancoles.nowandthenphotography

CONTENTS FOR THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF CONTEMPORARY BALLET

Acknowledgments
About the Contributors
Introduction
On Contemporaneity in Ballet: Exchanges, Connections, and Directions in Form
Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen
Part I: Pioneers, or Game Changers
Chapter 1: William Forsythe: Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and the Forsythescape
Ann Nugent
Chapter 2: Hans van Manen: Between Austerity and Expression Anna Seidl
Chapter 3: Twyla Tharp’s Classical Impulse
Kyle Bukhari
Chapter 4: Ballet at the Margins: Karole Armitage and Bronislava Nijinska
Molly Faulkner and Julia Gleich
Chapter 5: Maguy Marin’s Social and Aesthetic Critique
Mara Mandradjieff
Chapter 6: Fusion and Renewal in the Works of Jiří Kylián
Katja Vaghi
Chapter 7: Wayne McGregor: Thwarting Expectation at The Royal Ballet
Jo Butterworth and Wayne McGregor
Part II: Reimaginings
Chapter 8: Feminist Practices in Ballet: Katy Pyle and Ballez
Gretchen Alterowitz
Chapter 9: Contemporary Repetitions: Rhetorical Potential and The Nutcracker
Michelle LaVigne
Chapter 10: Mauro Bigonzetti: Reimagining Les Noces (1923)
Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel
Chapter 11: New Narratives from Old Texts: Contemporary Ballet in Australia
Michelle Potter
Chapter 12: Cathy Marston: Writing Ballets for Literary Dance(r)s
Deborah Kate Norris
Chapter 13: Jean-Christophe Maillot: Ballet, Untamed
Laura Cappelle
Chapter 14: Ballet Gone Wrong: Michael Clark’s Classical Deviations
Arabella Stanger
Part III: It’s Time
Chapter 15: Dance Theatre of Harlem: Radical Black Female Bodies in Ballet
Tanya Wideman-Davis
Chapter 16: Huff! Puff! And Blow the House Down: Contemporary Ballet in South Africa
Gerard M. Samuel
Chapter 17: The Cuban Diaspora: Stories of Defection, Brain Drain and Brain Gain
Lester Tomé
Chapter 18: Balancing Reconciliation at The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Bridget Cauthery and Shawn Newman
Chapter 19: Ballet Austin: So You Think You Can Choreograph
Caroline Sutton Clark
Chapter 20: Gender Progress and Interpretation in Ballet Duets
Jennifer Fisher
Chapter 21: John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet: A Legacy
E. Hollister Mathis-Masury
Chapter 22: “Ballet” Is a Dirty Word: Where Is Ballet in São Paulo?
Henrique Rochelle
Part IV: Composition
Chapter 23: William Forsythe: Creating Ballet Anew
Susan Leigh Foster
Chapter 24: Amy Seiwert: Okay, Go! Improvising the Future of Ballet
Ann Murphy
Chapter 25: Costume
Caroline O’Brien
Chapter 26: Shapeshifters and Colombe’s Folds: Collective Affinities of Issey Miyake and William Forsythe
Tamara Tomić-Vajagić
Chapter 27: On Physicality and Narrative: Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern (2017)
Lucía Piquero Álvarez
Chapter 28: Living in Counterpoint
Norah Zuniga Shaw
Chapter 29: Alexei Ratmansky’s Abstract-Narrative Ballet
Anne Searcy
Chapter 30: Talking Shop: Interviews with Justin Peck, Benjamin Millepied, and Troy Schumacher
Roslyn Sulcas
Part V: Exchanges Inform
Chapter 31: Royal Ballet Flanders under Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Lise Uytterhoeven
Chapter 32: Akram Khan and English National Ballet
Graham Watts
Chapter 33: The Race of Contemporary Ballet: Interpellations of Africanist Aesthetics
Thomas F. DeFrantz
Chapter 34: Copy Rites
Rachana Vajjhala
Chapter 35: Transmitting Passione: Emio Greco and the Ballet National de Marseille
Sarah Pini and John Sutton
Chapter 36: Narratives of Progress and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal
Melissa Templeton
Chapter 37: Mark Morris: Clarity, a Dash of Magic, and No Phony Baloney
Gia Kourlas
Part VI: The More Things Change . . .
Chapter 38: Ratmansky: From Petipa to Now
Apollinaire Scherr
Chapter 39: James Kudelka: Love, Sex, and Death
Amy Bowring and Tanya Evidente
Chapter 40: Liam Scarlett: “Classicist’s Eye . . . Innovator’s Urge”
Susan Cooper
Chapter 41: Performing the Past in the Present: Uncovering the Foundations of Chinese Contemporary Ballet
Rowan McLelland
Chapter 42: Between Two Worlds: Christopher Wheeldon and The Royal Ballet
Zoë Anderson
Chapter 43: Christopher Wheeldon: An Englishman in New York
Rachel Straus
Chapter 44: The Disappearance of Poetry and the Very, Very Good Idea
Freya Vass
Chapter 45: Justin Peck: Everywhere We Go (2014), a Ballet Epic for Our Time
Mindy Aloff
Part VII: In Process
Chapter 46: Weaving Apollo: Women’s Authorship and Neoclassical Ballet
Emily Coates
Chapter 47: What Is a Rehearsal in Ballet?
Janice Ross
Chapter 48: Gods, Angels, and Björk: David Dawson, Arthur Pita, and Contemporary Ballet
Jennie Scholick
Chapter 49: Alonzo King LINES Ballet: Voicing Dance
Jill Nunes Jensen
Chapter 50: Inside Enemy
Thomas McManus
Chapter 51: On “Contemporaneity” in Ballet and Contemporary Dance: Jeux in 1913 and 2016
Hanna Järvinen
Chapter 52: Reclaiming the Studio: Observing the Choreographic Processes of Cathy Marston and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Carrie Gaiser Casey
Chapter 53: Contemporary Partnerships
Russell Janzen
Index

La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet. Digital Season 2020 (and some memories)

I had the pleasure recently of watching, via its digital streaming season, a performance by the Royal Ballet of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée. It featured Marianela Nuñez as Lise and Carlos Acosta as Colas and dates back to 2005. The partnership between Nuñez and Acosta was technically outstanding and delightful from the point of view of the interactions between the two dancers. Ashton’s choreography, of course, was full of beautiful and often unexpected movements, including his constant use of epaulement; and scenes that I relished seeing again—the storm scene for example, with the cast rushing hither and thither was quite absorbing.

Below is a link to the Act I Pas de ruban.

But the production also brought back memories of some other productions I had seen, and some wider contextual issues that have arisen over the years.

Memories of Fille

  • Paris Opera Ballet

Perhaps the most memorable production I have seen was a performance by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2009. It happened on 14 July, the French national day, so there were one or two moments before and during that performance where that significance of that day was not forgotten. Here is a link to the review I wrote.

  • A thoughtful young man

On a contextual issue, I am curious about the image below from an Australian Ballet performance of Fille during the 1970s. Who is the young man standing there looking thoughtful? I have my suspicions! The image was taken by Walter Stringer and is part of his collection held in the National Library in Canberra. Sadly, the colour is fading, or changing, and I have had to put a filter on it so that the face of the dancer is a little clearer.

Dancers in a 1970s Australian Ballet production of La Fille mal gardée. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

(Update on the photograph above: Confirming my suspicion, those who know suggest the thoughtful young man is Graeme Murphy).

  • Alan Alder

And on another contextual issue, I recently made a timed summary of an oral history interview I did with Alan Alder back in 1999. The interview and its summary will shortly go online. In the meantime, below I have posted a short (1 min 12 secs) excerpt from the interview.

Alder was well-known for his portrayal of Alain, Lise’s rich but slightly unusual suitor in Fille, both during his time with the Royal Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet. The role was created by Ashton on Alexander Grant, and later the role was taken on by Donald Britton. But due to circumstances, which Alder explains in the interview, while with the Royal Ballet’s touring company Alder took over the role from Britton. On one occasion, when the touring company was in Edinburgh, Ashton decided to take a trip from London to see how Alder was handling the role. In the brief extract below Alder speak of Ashton’s reaction.

  • David Vaughan

The production by the Royal also brought back memories of my late colleague David Vaughan, former archivist for the Merce Cunningham company and author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. Cunningham and Ashton were the two choreographers Vaughan admired most of all (although some correspondence I had with him shortly before he died suggests that, had he lived on, he would have added Alexei Ratmansky to that list). But I often wondered what he considered were the characteristics of Cunningham and Ashton that drew him towards these two choreographers. Did he see similarities in their approaches to choreography? Sadly, I never asked and now I will never know.

Michelle Potter, 16 June 2020

Featured image: Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta in La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet, 2005. Photo: © Bill Cooper/ROH

Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Dance diary. September 2019

  • The Australian Ballet 2020

The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season, announced earlier this month, looks to be the most interesting the company has offered for years. I was thrilled to see that Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina was on the list. Although I haven’t seen this particular work I was lucky enough to see San Francisco Ballet perform Possokhov’s Rite of Spring back in 2013. It was totally mesmerising and I can’t wait to see Anna Karenina.

Another work I have seen elsewhere, which I am also anticipating with pleasure, is Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, which dates back to 1976. Seeing it just a few years ago I wrote, ‘I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography’.

The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season includes A Month in the Country as part of a triple bill, Molto, which also comprises Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory, one of his best works I think, and a revival of Stephen Baynes’ crowd pleasing Molto Vivace. A Month in the Country needs strong acting (as no doubt Anna Karenina does too), so fingers crossed that the company’s coaching is good.

For other good things on the 2020 program, including Graeme Murphy’s delayed Happy Prince and a new work, Logos, from Alice Topp, see the Australian Ballet’s website.

  • In the wings

Two stories that were meant to be posted in September were held up for various reasons. One is a profile of Shaun Parker who is currently in Taiwan performing at the Kuandu Arts festival in Taipei. The other is Jennifer Shennan’s account of a tribute held recently in Wellington to celebrate 40 years of teaching by Christine Gunn at the New Zealand School of Dance. Jennifer’s story is reflective and personal without ignoring the stellar input from Gunn over 40 years.

The issues that delayed these two posts have been sorted and the stories will appear shortly.

Portrait of Shaun Parker
  • Press for September 2019

None! I am reminded of Martin Portus’ comment to me in a recent email ‘Ah! The death of the [print] outlet!’


Michelle Potter, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler
Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Obsidian Tear, Marguerite and Armand, Elite Syncopations. The Royal Ballet

18 April, 2018, Royal Opera House, London

It would be hard to think of a more diverse triple bill than the most recent from the Royal Ballet: Wayne McGregor’s intellectually clinical Obsidian Tear, Frederick Ashton’s emotionally captivating Marguerite and Armand, and Kenneth MacMillan’s joyously entertaining Elite Syncopations. There is, as ever, little to fault technically with the dancing by this incredible company so my thoughts are largely guided by other matters.

The absolute standout work of the evening was Marguerite and Armand, which occupied the middle position on the program. Yes, it is so closely associated with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and perhaps Sylvie Guillem and various partners, but Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli gave an absolutely stunning performance that brought out every bit of Ashton’s wildly free and exciting, and beautifully musical choreography. And what a grand performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, to which the work is set, we heard from the accomplished pianist Robert Clark.

In my mind I continue to have a vision of Bonelli standing upstage about to rush forward to sweep Marguerite up in his arms and begin the main pas de deux. He took an arabesque on half pointe, arms flung upwards and outwards. And there he stood, balancing perfectly, body filled with passion and daring. Brilliant, as was the pas de deux itself with Ferri being flung from pose to pose and both artists projecting the ravishing excitement of what their love could be. And so it continued with the narrative flowing so clearly to the very end. I’m not sure how long this ballet is—twenty five minutes maybe—but it was over in a flash so captivating was it.

The opening work, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, left me a little cold and its choreography seemed stark and emotionless—but then I guess obsidian is a hard substance. Everything seemed to happen suddenly. Lighting cut out rather than faded and movement, while it showed McGregor’s interest in pushing limits, had little that was lyrical.

The most interesting aspect for me was the set, designed by McGregor. It resembled a black box theatre space but looking closely it reminded me of an Ad Reinhardt painting. At first Reinhardt’s paintings look monochromatic, as did McGregor’s set, but a closer look reveals small, intimate details, as also happened with the set for Obsidian Tear. Of the dancers, I especially enjoyed the dancing of Benjamin Ella and Marcelino Sambé. But Obsidian Tear did not engage me the way so many others of McGregor’s works have.

Royal Ballet artists in 'Obsidian Tear'. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper
Royal Ballet artists in Obsidian Tear. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper

The final work on the program was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, danced to a selection of music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, and played by an onstage band. Beautifully set on a stripped-back stage space with the dancers and band members in spectacular costumes by Ian Spurling, it was a buoyant, joyous, even reckless show.

Without wishing to detract from any of the twelves dancers who gave us such pleasure, stars were Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano. Hirano in particular knocked me for six. I have always seen him in more classical or dramatic roles (and have enjoyed his work in such ballets) but in Elite Syncopations he showed another side of his skills. He was smooth, persuasive, suave, flirtatious and a great partner. And he never stepped out of character.

As a conclusion to a decidedly mixed triple bill, Elite Syncopations sent us home smiling.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 2018 

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

La Fille mal gardée. Queensland Ballet

9 August 2017. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

It is always refreshing to see a different version of a well-known work. And so it was with Queensland Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée. The version that is well-known to many Australian dance-goers is by Frederick Ashton, which Ashton made for the Royal Ballet in 1960, and which has been in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet since 1967 (although it hasn’t been shown for several years). On the other hand, Queensland Ballet, in a co-production with West Australian Ballet, staged a relatively new version by French-born, freelance choreographer Marc Ribaud, which he made in 2000 for the Nice Opera Ballet.

Ribaud has retained the basic narrative. It follows the story of Lise and Colas who wish to marry, but whose wishes are thwarted by Lise’s mother, the Widow Simone—she would prefer that Lise marry the eccentric and wealthy Alain whose greatest love is for his umbrella. But the overall tone of Ribaud’s Fille, which is set in the south of France in the 1950s, is quite different from that in the Ashton work. The choreography for Ribaud’s work is classically based but is boisterous and full of fast-paced dancing. It seems to fill the stage in an entirely different way from Ashton’s work, which seems very English in its rather gentle and considered choreographic approach. Ribaud’s Fille, at least with the cast I saw, also has strong overtones of slapstick. While Ashton gives us references to pantomime, his are much more restrained. Perhaps more subtle?

Ribaud has also retained some audience favourites from the Ashton version, albeit with changes. The famous clog dance is there although the Widow is accompanied by four village lads who tap away beside her as she goes through her clog routine. The chicken dance is also there but in a variant form. There are no dancers dressed in chicken outfits, just four male friends of Colas and Lise, dressed in jeans and giving us chicken-like gestures—chins poking forward as they move, hands with fingers spread to represent a chicken’s comb and so on. It was hilarious and very clever.

As Lise, Lina Kim with her smooth and lyrical technique was absolutely charming—it was her first performance in the role too. She showed such a variety of emotion, depending on who else was involved at any one time, and her mime scene in the last act, when she imagines what might be should she marry Colas, was just gorgeous, as was her later embarrassment when she thought Colas had seen her. Shane Wuerthner was an ardent Colas and in the opening pas de deux set the scene beautifully for what was to follow. I was impressed, in fact, with all Ribaud’s pas de deux, which often reminded me of the style of Bournonville as so often Lise and Colas danced side by side in a complementary manner rather than the man having a more supportive role. That is not to say, of course, that there were no lifts and, in fact, when they occurred they varied from soaring lifts to shapes, often with upturned feet, in which Lise’s body wrapped round or curled up to that of Colas.

Despite a little trouble with his umbrella (it broke) and his hat, Ze Wu gave a strong performance as Alain and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future—his technical range looks prodigious. The umbrella and hat problems were beautifully and professionally handled by the cast, to the extent that the Widow Simone adopted the broken umbrella and stroked it lovingly! Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers. And I enjoyed that Lina Kim gave back the way she did every time she was scolded.

Costumes by Lexi De Silva, sets by Richard Roberts and lighting by Jon Buswell provided a great background for the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Music was performed by Camerata—Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra and conducted with his usual skill by Nigel Gaynor. This Fille is a little gem and Queensland Ballet continues to show what a terrific company it has become. Bouquets to all.

(I have no images of the cast I saw, unfortunately. But below are some from another cast.)

Artists of Queensland Ballet in 'La Fille mal gardee', 2017. Photo: © David Kelly
Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Fille mal gardée, 2017. Photos: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 12 August 2017

Featured image: Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Fille mal gardée, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

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

Dance diary. February 2016

  • Vale Andris Toppe

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

Portrait of Andris Toppe

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

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

  • Janet. A Silent Ballet Film

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

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

  • Steven McRae in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody
Steven McRae in Rhapsody. The Royal Ballet. Photo (c) Dave Morgan @DanceTabs.com
Steven McRae, with Benjamin Ella and Yasmine Naghdi, in Rhapsody. Photo: © Dave Morgan@DanceTabs.com. Courtesy the Royal Ballet

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

  • Site news

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

  • Press for February

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

Michelle Potter, 29 February 2016

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

The Dream. A second look

16 May 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

After feeling less than satisfied with my earlier viewing of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill of Ashton works—Monotones II, Symphonic Variations and The Dream—it was such a pleasure to have a second look and come away feeling much more fulfilled.

Monotones II was danced by the same cast that I saw on opening night, Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, but all my feeling that the work was outdated disappeared. Gone too were those hideous shadows that marred my first viewing, although they linger a little on the photograph below. This time, the visually pristine quality of the work was all there. I had a much better seat, but was that the only reason? I suspect not.

There was a real serenity to the performance. All three dancers were attuned to each other’s movements. There were gorgeous moments of symmetry that gently broke into asymmetry. Bodies twisted and threaded through arched shapes. Winding and unwinding. It was a truly beautiful, calm, technically satisfying performance.

Symphonic Variations too was danced in a far superior fashion to what I saw on opening night. The three women, Lana Jones, Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow were well cast together. They are of similar height and body shape and it made a huge difference. The men, Andrew Killian, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright, were experienced enough to manage the difficult partnering without looking as though they were fumbling around. They also handled better the experience of being on stage for the entire ballet.

Technically, all six dancers showed every beautiful and often intricate detail of Ashton’s choreography—the elongated fingers, the hands turned up from the wrists, the lines made between dancers, for example. The spacing and patterning of the work was also clear, and the movements flowed smoothly. A delight to watch. I loved that moment for the women when they turned chaînés around their partner, starting one after the other and with one arm spiralling upwards as if propelled by the twirling of the feet. And I gasped as the men, in a line upstage, all turned a double pirouette ending in attitude and finished perfectly, in the same line, in time, and with their attitudes at the same height. Just beautiful and surely how Ashton imagined this work would be danced.

Still something missing there though—that incredible feeling that I got from the Royal that this was an awakening from the darkness. And it was only after reading (much later) the Royal’s program notes that I realised the circumstances behind Ashton’s creation of the work. So I didn’t set out with a preconceived idea. But thank you to the six Australian Ballet dancers I saw on this occasion. It was a lovely, serene performance, despite the medical emergency that was going on in the auditorium at the time.

The Dream looked mostly as beautiful as it did on opening night, this time with Miwako Kubota and Jared Wright taking the leading roles of Titania and Oberon. Wright stood out in his solo variation in the final pas de deux. His movements were beautifully shaped and coordinated. Andrew Wright and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson gave excellent performances as Demetrius and Lysander. Wright in particular was able to demonstrate how skilled Ashton is at incorporating humour into his works. Marcus Morelli, with his exceptional elevation, made Puck look as if he belonged in the air.

Overall, what a difference!

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2015

Featured image: Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

My initial review is at this link.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in 'The Dream'. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream. The Australian Ballet

29 April 2015, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There were peaks and troughs in the Australian Ballet’s second program for 2015, a triple bill of works by Frederick Ashton. There were also a few surprises.

The undoubted highlight was The Dream, which was also used as the overarching title for the program. We have been told over and over that Ashton was a genius, and many aspects of his work that support that idea were apparent onstage in The Dream, Ashton’s take on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most obvious is the incredible way in which Ashton is able to make a story so clear through movement and mime. No need to know the story beforehand. Everything is comprehensible and coherent. The entire cast of The Dream is to be congratulated for the way they handled Ashton’s approach, and bouquets to the two gentlemen who staged the work—Anthony Dowell and Christopher Carr.

Then there is Ashton’s complex choreography with all its tricky steps, swirling arms, fluid upper body, unexpected combinations, and so forth. Madeleine Eastoe as Titania was superbly in control and made even the trickiest of movements look easy. Her solo with its many hops, turns, swoons and swirls was captivating. And the final pas de deux between a reconciled Titania and Oberon (danced by Kevin Jackson) was  a delight. Their partnership has grown into one from which we now expect, and receive, nothing but the best.

Chengwu Guo as Puck and Kevin Jackson as Oberon in Frederick Ashton's 'The Dream', the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Daniel Boud
Chengwu Guo as Puck and Kevin Jackson as Oberon in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Chengwu Guo was a standout as Puck. I continue to gasp at his beautifully controlled multiple turns, his leaps, his beats. But best of all those amazing technical skills were, on this occasion, put to such good use. They combined perfectly with his particular brand of physicality, and with his personality, to advance the story. Guo was as puckish as they come.

Joseph Chapman delighted the audience as Bottom, the crazy mechanical who wears the head of an ass, courtesy of Puck, and who dances on pointe. His characterisation was strong and maintained consistently and, unbelieveably, he was believable. He was the one everyone was talking about as they left the auditorium.

Madeline Eastoe as Titania and Joseph Chapman as Bottom in Frederick Ashton's 'The Dream', the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Daniel Boud
Madeline Eastoe as Titania and Joseph Chapman as Bottom in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The corps de ballet had been beautifully rehearsed and nothing was forgotten of the Ashton style—head and arm movements especially. And take a bow Benedicte Bemet as Moth. To me she looked like a born Ashton dancer. But then I think she is just a born dancer.

That’s where the peaks ended I’m afraid!

The first half of the program consisted of Monotones II and Symphonic VariationsMonotones II, danced by Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, has not really stood the test of time for me. It looked quite outdated and very static. As for Symphonic Variations, could it really be the same ballet I was lucky enough to see in London last year danced by the Royal Ballet? As the curtain went up I got a thrill to see Robyn Hendricks and Cristiano Martino looking stunning as the lead couple—elegant with proud bearing promising much. But where was the ‘sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty’ that I saw in London that set my heart singing? The dancing was all over the place, technically beyond the experience of one or two of the dancers, and with little feeling for the spacing and floor plan of the work. A huge disappointment as far as I am concerned.

As for the surprises, well one was pleasant, one wasn’t. Why on earth did the cast sheet say that the performance of Symphonic Variations was ‘The world-premiere performance’? The ballet was made in 1946. But a pleasant surprise came at the end of The Dream as the entire cast was taking its final curtain. The Australian Ballet’s ingrained manner of acknowledging the orchestra during the final curtain call by coming forward and leaning into the orchestra pit and clapping for an inordinate amount of time was gone, thankfully. Instead, the company moved forward, stood in poses that maintained the mood of the work they had just danced and, with an elegant sweep of one arm to the side, acknowledged the orchestra. The integrity of the dance was maintained and the company looked stylish and dignified. Thank you to whomever decided to dispense with what we have been watching over several years now, which I find crass. May this new-found elegance in curtain calls continue.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2015

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Artists of The Australian Ballet in 'The Dream'. Photo: Daniel Boud

A second look at this program is at this link.

Ashton mixed bill. The Royal Ballet

18 October 2014 (evening), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The prospect of four works by Frederick Ashton on the one program is something that fills those not brought up in an Ashton environment with anticipation. Of the four works on the Royal Ballet’s recent program, Scènes de Ballet, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Symphonic Variations and A Month in the Country, I had never seen Five Brahms Waltzes and had seen the others on only one previous occasion each.

Symphonic Variations, led by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov supported by Yasmine Naghdi and James Hay and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer, perhaps moved me most. What clarity and fluidity those six dancers brought to the work. It was a breathtaking performance where everyone was a star, although perhaps it was Muntagirov, with his elegant bearing and his exceptional technical accomplishments, who attracted my attention most. But the ballet as a whole was beautifully danced to an elegant rendition by pianist Paul Stobart of Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations. And I had forgotten how fresh and entrancing Sophie Fedorovitch’s decor is—a spring green, box-like space with fine black lines weaving a flowing pattern across the backdrop and flats. It was a sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty of movement. No in depth analysis can ever do it justice.

Five Brahms Waltzes was danced by Helen Crawford, replacing an injured Lauren Cuthbertson. The sense of gravity and weight in her dancing in the first and second waltzes contrasted nicely with her performance of the third waltz in which she manipulated a soaring rectangle of silk. Equally impressive was the contrast between a somewhat fierce fourth waltz and the gentle fifth with its rose petals falling liberally from her arms. I loved too the contrast between those light skips à la Isadora and the lower, almost crouching poses with fists clenched that appeared every so often. It was a finely thought through performance.

Scènes de ballet, which opened the program, was distinguished by the presence of Sarah Lamb as the ballerina. The quality of her dancing was especially noticeable in her main solo with its loosely swinging wrists and arms and lyrical movement of the whole body. But this ballet really needs to have every performer dancing with exactness. I missed straight lines, equal spacing and sameness in height of legs. The geometry of the work falls apart without such precision. And it was a disappointment to see Steven McRae, who partnered Lamb, begin with such promise—those sharp turns of the head and the pride with which he held his upper body were mesmerising—only to falter often as the work progressed.

The program closed with A Month in the Country and I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography.

It was a real pleasure to see four quite different Ashton works brought together in one program but it was curious to see how those little runs on pointe kept appearing over and over. I was almost waiting for the next one by the time we reached A Month in the Country.

Michelle Potter, 22 October 2014

International Gala 2011. Queensland Ballet

Asaf Messerer’s brief pas de deux, Spring Waters, was first seen in Australia around five decades ago when the Bolshoi Ballet visited the country. Then it was the most technically exciting pas de deux most people had ever seen. Now those high lifts with the man using just one arm to hold his partner aloft, and the sight of a female dancer throwing herself through the air into the arms of her partner, are not so rare. But Spring Waters remains a delight and its inclusion on the Queensland Ballet’s 2011 International Gala was something of a treat. Despite having to perform it to what sounded like an ancient recording, two of the guests artists who joined the dancers of Queensland Ballet for the gala, Ambra Vallo and Tyrone Singleton from Birmingham Royal Ballet, danced it with just the right sense of youthfulness and joy.

Vallo and Singleton also danced the pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Two Pigeons. This charming yet elegant pas de deux was a reminder that choreographers whose voice is distinctive are rare and precious. It was a joy to watch Ashton’s placement of the two dancers in relation to each other, often in unexpected but always harmonious juxtapositions.

Other works on the program were not so well served by international performers, or by their choreographers. Two very youthful dancers from Singapore Dance Theatre made a brave effort with the final pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Kenya Nakamura as the Prince was inflexible in the upper body and very nervous. It meant that his performance was stilted and wooden. His partner, Tomoko Takahashi, had a lovely smile and was technically capable of executing the steps, but her performance suffered from inadequate partnering.

Two dancers from Berlin’s Staatsballett, Krasina Pavlova and Rainer Krenstetter, each had a solo on the program, although Krenstetter’s solo, Barocco by Renato Zanella, was little more than a series of poses. They also danced together in Grand pas classique, choreographed by Victor Gsovsky. Their performance in this pas de deux with variations in the traditional manner needed much more vivacity than we were given. I think both dancers needed to be reminded that dance happens with the human body and thus is inherently sexy (if not necessarily overtly sexual), especially if it is a pas de deux. There was little engagement between Krenstretter and Pavlova in Grand pas classique, and little engagement with the audience other than an occasional, unwarranted look of triumph on completion of certain steps. A great disappointment.

Probably the most interesting, and certainly the most anticipated work on the program was Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues, a new work for three couples. Set to music by Philip Glass, Christe’s choreography is ‘of the moment’. Bodies wrap around bodies and stretch into seemingly impossible positions, Visually it is often hard to disentangle one body from another. The work was expertly performed by Clare Morehen and Keian Langdon, Meng Ningning and Hao Bin formerly of the National Ballet of China but now dancing with Queensland Ballet, and Rachael Walsh and Christian Tátchev. And while the choreography and its performance were impressive, what made this work really stand out for me was the lighting design by David Walters. It gave the work an almost liquid quality: Short Dialogues seemed to pass before our eyes like an unexpected breeze—here one minute, gone the next.

At this International Gala the strongest performers were rarely the international guests but rather the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Apart from the execution of Christe’s slick, contemporary choreography, they also showed their theatricality in François Klaus’ Overture and Finale. His choreography for the opening and closing sequences of the gala had overtones of a contemporary commedia dell’arte and the dancers responded in a manner that was beautifully playful and slightly humorous. Noelene Hill’s pert red and orange costumes, including the cheeky frill on the women’s costume and the equally cheeky short shorts that were part of the men’s outfit, were perfect in carrying through the style.

The dancers carried their ability to move between diverse choreographic styles into Rosetta Cook’s homage to the tango, Hall of Flame, a work dedicated to former artistic director of Queensland Ballet, Harold Collins, who died just a week before the gala. I especially admired Kathleen Doody in Hall of Flame. She gave a cool, sophisticated reading of her character in a slightly over-long work that required cameo performances from each dancer.

Galas are always touch and go events. Unless the performers and the choreography are exceptional, and this was not always the case with this gala, such occasions are inevitably beset with problems of uneven quality and interest, as was the case.

Michelle Potter, 8 August 2011