The best of everything to those who have followed this website over the past year. Thank you for your loyalty. And here’s hoping that 2021 will be one that is filled with dance, even live dance perhaps? Stay safe and healthy.
Highlights of 2020 (on and off stage)
I was very fortunate to see the opening night performance of Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince. It had a short run in Brisbane in February but showings elsewhere were cancelled due to the pandemic. I really would like to see it again as there was a lot there that needed a second look. I hope we will see it again, given that the leadership of the Australian Ballet has changed.
By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake Marchin which, over several weekends in August, eight dancers, accompanied by two musicians, made their way around Canberra’s three lakes. They paused briefly on occasions to engage with each other and with the rather surprised audience of joggers, bike riders and so on who were also using the lakeside for exercise. Lake March won Plevey a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in December. The citation read:
For courageously working within the restrictive conditions generated by COVID-19 to bring an innovative and entertaining production of dance and live music, presented in several outdoor venues, to an audience of dance goers and the wider Canberra community. Alison Plevey for Lake March.
In October we were able to venture into the theatre for a QL2 Dance program featuring a work called Sympathetic Monsters by Jack Ziesing. It was an absorbing work in terms of its choreographic structure and in its thematic content.
Of course I watched many streamed performances over the course of 2020. It was more than interesting to see close-up images of faces and expressions and also details of costume. Nothing can replace a live performance but I derived much pleasure from streamed performances, especially from companies I wouldn’t normally see. Borrowed Light from Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company in collaboration with Boston Camerata was perhaps the most outstanding example. I was transfixed by this performance and have Jacob’s Pillow to thank for streaming it as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival 2020.
Sunil Kothari (1933–2020). Indian dance critic
I was saddened to hear of the death of Indian dance writer Sunil Kothari from complications of COVID-19. He visited Australia on a number of occasions and I recall a talk he gave in Canberra for the Canberra Critics’ Circle, several years ago now. He was a passionate advocate for dance and was a mentor to Padma Menon, who performed extensively in Canberra during the 1990s.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer featured as the ‘Publishing Spotlight’ in the Summer 2020–2021 edition of the newsletter of the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The review was written by Friends Committee Member and well known Canberra-based arts and craft specialist, Meredith Hinchliffe. Follow this link to read the review.
This book is treasure and joy. It covers the lifelong career of Wellington-born Kristian Fredrikson, designer for ballet, theatre, opera, film and television in both New Zealand and Australia. The volume is itself an achievement of fine design—superbly presented and generously illustrated, though selective in the careful interpolation of images, both drawings and performance photographs, into the text. It is an appreciative profile by an author who clearly loves the work of her subject but, resisting hagiography, has produced perceptive analysis and an enduring record of his lifetime’s work in a notoriously ephemeral performing art. Both she and the publisher are to be congratulated.
Extensive research (Potter first conducted an oral history with Fredrikson in 1993) has allowed coverage of his prolific body of work. There are frequent quotations from his own unpublished writings about ideas and work processes, which I found illuminating. The appendices provide extensive documentation, leaving the text refreshingly accessible.
There are stimulating insights and analyses of both the aesthetic and historical influences in Fredrikson’s work (Klimt is there, Rothko is there, mediaeval Sicily, 19th century New Zealand, war-time Vietnam, outback and small-town Australia are there). Potter’s invaluable commentaries will help audiences follow, in retrospect, ‘new narratives from old texts’ in the innovative reworkings of classics such as Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake (1985) for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara (1992) and his Swan Lake (2002) both for The Australian Ballet.
Long-time ballet followers in New Zealand would say they knew Fredrikson’s work well, keeping memories for decades of his sumptuous Swan Lakes, the ingenious A Servant of Two Masters, a poignant Orpheus, a searing Firebird, an enigmatic Jean [Batten], a spirited Peter Pan, atmospheric A Christmas Carol, and hilarious The Nutcracker. The book also includes his prolific output across other genres of theatre away from ballet. It is fascinating to learn of Fredrikson’s sensitive and restrained approaches to plays and films such as Hedda Gabler, with Cate Blanchett, or those with Australian Aboriginal, Vietnamese or American Indian settings … ‘away from dancers who spend their time twirling around on their toes’. We thus see a different side to the designer who always prioritised the contribution he could make to a collaborative project, rather than use it as an opportunity to primarily display his own aesthetic.
Interviews with his ballet colleagues, especially Gray Veredon and Graeme Murphy, contribute to the portrayal of a deeply intelligent, thoughtful, private man with uncompromising respect for those trusted choreographers and directors with whom he worked most closely. The standout choreographic collaborations would have been with Murphy, Veredon and Russell Kerr, and they are quoted as appreciating the close integration of design and choreographic ideas, with a sense of movement always portrayed in the designs. Fredrikson did not dress mannequins, he dressed movers.
Dancers, too, appreciated this empathy, even when his costumes of period or character required particular weights, silhouettes and textiles. There are descriptions of his attending dance rehearsals to photograph sequences so as to be sure whatever fantasy he had in mind would also prove practical. Compromises and re-workings were sometimes required.
Increasingly, today’s ballet practitioners seem less and less interested in the source and history of their art. It is heartening to learn how Fredrikson’s starting point for his concepts grew out of impeccable historical research. Since my own work and interests lie in Renaissance and Baroque dance and related arts, I was pleased to copy out a passage from his own words, about transforming, or inventing a historical period:
The problem is most of us don’t know true period. We look at a Watteau painting and we say, ‘Oh that’s how they dressed in Watteau’s time.’ Well they didn’t. Watteau made up his own people. We look at Rembrandt and say, ‘That’s how they dressed in Rembrandt’s day.’ They did not. Rembrandt created costumes for them… Our understanding of the past is so unreal that even if I do the real history, it’s surreal. And I suppose that’s what I do. I go towards the real history and that seems extraordinary.
I am now very happy to have this quote as a fridge magnet in my kitchen. It seems to echo the equally interesting and challenging practice of a writer using historical or autobiographical fiction as an imaginative way of telling a ‘true’ story.
Chapter 6, New Zealand Impressions, has a fabulous full-page image of Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Jon Trimmer is portrayed as the seductively beautiful pirate, Peter Pan squatting at his feet is Everyboy—with a somewhat perplexed expression on his face, wondering why anyone would want to leave childhood and become an adult. The study for the Angel of Death in Murphy’s Orpheus is chillingly beautiful. The priceless comic play of Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi and Jon Trimmer as Pantalone in Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters is evidence of one of the best productions RNZB ever staged.
But it is the two quietly dramatic photographs from Veredon’s Tell me a Tale that could slow your breathing. The choreography tells a particular story, though it could have been the story of many a family. The cast are early European settlers arriving in New Zealand, meeting and interacting with Maori people. The young pakeha boy befriending a Maori girl brings forth a furious haka from her brother—performed by the much admired (and then much missed ) Warren Douglas. This was the most convincing representation of haka on a ballet stage I have seen in six decades of watching a range of attempts. What a sorry business that Tale was never restaged by RNZB, and it’s a safe if sad bet it is never likely to be—even though the original cast are around and could still be involved, and indeed the choreographer, one of New Zealand’s finest dance-makers, is still actively staging his works in Europe. I treasure these fine photographs of a talisman work from RNZB ‘s early repertoire, gone but not forgotten. It belongs here in New Zealand, exists nowhere else, and should be neither gone nor forgotten.
The eighth and final chapter ‘The Ultimate Ballet: Swan Lake’ is an insightful comparison of approaches taken to this classic work, tracing the five different productions Fredrikson worked on. There are both similar and contrasting elements within those stagings—revealing the nature of von Rothbart’s evil, learning that Odette’s mother’s tears created the lake that her daughter will drown in, and the possibility of lovers separated by death though reuniting in an afterlife. The themes of love, treachery and loyalty are the same as those we live by, so even quite different settings in any production of calibre are as close to home as we choose to invite them.
You could call this an illustrated biography of the life’s work of a totally committed theatre designer. His life was his work, and the book emulates the man. There is no gossip, no bodice-ripping tell-all of a private life, no imposed psychoanalysis, and Alleluia to that I say. If you want to know who Kristian Fredrikson was and what was important to him, read his work. Read this book.
Jennifer Shennan, 18 August 2020
Featured image: Stephen McTaggart and Kerry-Anne Gilberd in a scene from Gray Veredon’s Tell Me a Tale (detail). Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Collection of Gray Veredon
There has been much to watch via digital streaming over the past few weeks. The Australian Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet of New Zealand, and others have all provided some excellent footage of works from their repertoire. Some of the works I have seen via digital streaming I have already mentioned on this site, but there are two impressive productions I have just watched that I have not yet written about (except in relation to previous live productions).
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s filmed version of Bennelong is outstanding. I have been impressed with the work on the occasions when I have seen it live—my review is at this link. But it was exciting to see it on film as well. What I liked especially was being able to see Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up. Her leafy outfits for the dancers in the opening movements were just beautiful, and it was fascinating to see close up the textures of the fabrics used for the women in Bennelong’s life, who appear towards the end of the work. I also loved being able to see Beau Dean Riley Smith’s facial expressions throughout. He was such an impressive performer in this role. The film was (and still is at the time of writing) available via the Sydney Opera House website.
The second film that I really enjoyed was New York City Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s Apollo. It has been a while since I have seen Apollo live and I was staggered by the performance and interpretation of the title role given by Taylor Stanley, NYCB principal. He danced with such athleticism and displayed precision and strength throughout. He saw himself as a god and was determined to act accordingly. It was an eye-opener. This film was available on nycballet.com but finishes on 1 May. But … next up from NYCB is Ballo della Regina. I’m sure it will be worth watching.
International Dance Day
Wednesday 29 April 2020 was International Dance Day. But much (if not all) that had been planned was not able to come to fruition. Some of the Canberra dance community did, however, put together a short video, Message in Motion. It centres on a speech by South African dancer and choreographer Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and is spoken by Liz Lea. The opening movement sequences are from James Batchelor, who is currently confined in Paris where he has a residency.
George Ogilvie ((1931-2020)
I was sorry to hear that George Ogilvie, theatre director, had died in Braidwood, New South Wales, on 5 April 2020. I especially regret that he did not live to see the Kristian Fredrikson book published, although he knew that it was on its way. Ogilvie was one of the executors of the Estate of Kristian Fredrikson, and so I had some dealings with him as a result of his holding that position. He and Fredrikson enjoyed a productive and close collaborative connection beginning in the 1960s when Ogilvie was working as artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company. They then went on to work together in productions by various theatrical companies including the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera (as it was then called).
Ogilvie also taught mime for the Australian Ballet School in its early years and in his autobiography, Simple Gifts, he recalls his time there, mentioning in particular his recollections of Graeme Murphy.
Vale George Ogilvie.
In a previous post I mentioned an oral history I had recorded with Chrissa Keramidas for the National Library’s oral history program. That interview now has a timed summary, which is online together with the audio, at this link.
25 February 2020. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Graeme Murphy has said that his latest creation, The Happy Prince, is basically for children. He wants, he says, ‘to cater for the tiny imagination bud inside children’s heads, which needs just the tiniest bit of imagination, of fertilisation, to burst into a million thoughts.’* I am looking forward to taking my grandchildren to see it. But, from the moment the work opens with an explosive sound and much white smoke—’the war is over’ says the program note—to the closing moments set on a sunny Australian beach, you don’t have to be a child for hundreds of thoughts to rush into your mind.
The narrative line is based on the Oscar Wilde story reimagined slightly by Murphy and Kim Carpenter. (Wilde’s version is readily available to read online.) In the ballet the Prince (Adam Bull) has been brought up to know only happiness. But, when a statue in his honour is erected in his home town, he comes to realise that not everyone lives in a world of happiness, and that there is much disparity between the rich and the poor. He engages with the Little Swallow (Marcus Morelli), who has not kept up with his migrating swallow family, and together they strip the statue of its rich decorations, which they give to the poor. The story ends sadly for both the Prince and the Swallow. But, as the ballet concludes, they are united in a different, heavenly world.
Instantly striking in the ballet are the visual aspects of the production. Sets and costumes by Carpenter, expressive lighting by Damien Cooper, and some fascinating projections by Fabian Astore created all kinds of resonances for me. Even though the production was meant to be set in post-war London, the township that was revealed as the smoke dissipated in the opening scene reminded me immediately of the architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and his eccentric apartment buildings in Vienna and elsewhere with their assortment of shapes and colours. By the time we got to the end of the show, the sunny Australian beach scene recalled Charles Meere’s iconic painting Australian Beach Pattern, with the addition of a dominating reference in the background to Hokusai’s famous woodblock The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In between, how enchanting was the drop cloth in the scene where the Prince explained to the Little Swallow that happiness had pervaded his childhood. The cloth looked as if it had been borrowed from a kindergarten or a child care centre and was perfectly in tune with the box labelled ‘Toys’ in the downstage corner, from which emerged an assortment of toys who danced their way across the stage. Which brings up the question of the choreography.
Murphy has always been at home moving groups of dancers around the stage and this ability was an outstanding aspect of his Happy Prince choreography. The way he filled the stage with townspeople in the village in the opening scene, and the groupings he set up in the final beach scene were strong examples. Then there were the references to other theatrical genres. The characters of the Lord Mayor (Luke Marchant) and the Lady Mayoress (Jarryd Madden) came straight out of the pantomime tradition with the Lady Mayoress being the traditional Dame (always played by a man). Their extravagant costuming and outrageous movement also recalled this tradition.
Touches of vaudeville appeared in the scene where the Little Swallow engages with Rita Reed (Serena Graham) and her companion Reedettes. The choreography for this scene was appropriately in the Tivoli line-up mode.
Much of the production was filled with emotive and heartwarming moments. The characters who benefitted from the Prince’s generosity were finely drawn characters and beautifully portrayed: Corey Herbert as the Seamstress, Nathan Brook as the Artist and Benedicte Bemet as the Little Match Girl. They engaged our hearts and minds as their poverty was revealed prior to being helped by the Prince and the Swallow. And in true Murphy fashion, the Swallow was not always bird-like (although he did have moments of flying) but a teen guy with jeans ripped at the knees and occasionally a skateboard as a means of getting around.
A commissioned score from Christopher Gordon added to what was an exceptional collaboration.
I must admit, however, that I did find it hard to be convinced that the final beach scenes related to the migration to Australia of the so-called ‘£10 Poms’ (as I learnt later from the program notes). To me it was just Murphy in the same kind of mode as I thought was clear in his Romeo and Juliet where the story moved from place to place, era to era. I remember calling his R & J postmodern (to the annoyance of some) because it made reference to many aspects of many things. The Happy Prince was a bit the same.
I look forward to seeing this production again when I am sure I will notice other things, more of the choreography perhaps, and probably change my mind on some issues. But my first impressions are that The Happy Prince is exciting, surprising and heart warming theatre in which the whole is so much more than the sum of its enticing parts.
An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.
The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.
Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, TheRagtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.
Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.
We should tell our
grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them
photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they
draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their
favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good
important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and
Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have
Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by
everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is
overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal
New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and
colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say
Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’
‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.
The sagas of
company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were
referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the
fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding
impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on
to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr
and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.
Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’
Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’
Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.
A friend in the audience commented later—’One
thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was
talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to
speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence
and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been
a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and
performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently
encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in
physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such
generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his
weight in gold.
There are more stories to be found in
Jon’s recently published memoir, Why
Dance?and details of the
Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the
RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.
Jon has also
explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary
gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and
wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his
own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout
a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs
during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but
never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience
in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and
truckloads of performance memories.
Also apparent is a
deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the
whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and
made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’
Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During
my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T.
perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a
wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of
love, ownership and appreciation.’
Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.
So what did Jonty
do? He joined in the applause of course.
Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019
Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019
Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link.[Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]
Below is the text of an article I was commissioned to write about the Canberra season of Sydney Dance Company’s first program for 2019, Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. It was meant also to include a note on the company’s 50 year history. Sadly and disappointingly, a truncated version, with no images, appeared in The Canberra Times. It was not what I was led to believe would happen.
Several people in the dance community were generous in their support of what I was writing, so I am posting the story as it was meant to be, and I’m including some images: an article on dance without images hardly makes sense.
Sydney Dance Company turns 50 in 2019 and it’s time to commemorate the exceptional endurance of one of the country’s favourite contemporary dance companies. It’s time, too, to celebrate Sydney Dance Company’s bold commitment to the new in the performing arts. The company’s current artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, calls that commitment ‘the continued investment the company has made in new Australian work over its 50-year history’.
Shane Carroll, former dancer with the company during the years it was led by Graeme Murphy, has been engaged in digging deep into the history of the company. She has come up with some astonishing figures. In addition to the creation of 250 new works, over 50 years Sydney Dance Company has commissioned new scores from 38 composers—the very first going to Peter Sculthorpe in 1971. It has also commissioned 124 different designers, employed more than 260 dancers, and has shown the work of about 90 different national and international choreographers.
‘It’s an amazing contribution,’ Carroll says. ‘The company has been a leader in developing a broad view of contemporary dance in Australia and the longevity of the company is incredible. It has also often been a rollicking ride. There have been no safe productions and funding has often been shaky. But the company has just persisted and has continued to push boundaries.’
Sydney Dance Company began quite modestly in 1969 as Ballet in a Nutshell. It was the idea of the then artistic director of the Australian Ballet, Peggy van Praagh, and was led by a foundation member of that company, Suzanne Musitz. Her small team consisted of some dancers from the Australian Ballet School and one pianist. It was essentially a dance in education company taking dance into schools, initially secondary schools in Sydney. A little later, to attract more boys to its sessions, the name was changed to Athletes and Dancers.
The group grew into a fully-fledged dance company named the Dance Company (NSW). After being led by Musitz for another few years and then, briefly, by Dutch choreographer Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy was appointed artistic director at the end of 1976. With his artistic associate (now wife) Janet Vernon, Murphy led the company for 30 years. The name change to Sydney Dance Company came in 1979.
The contribution made by Murphy and Vernon over that period raised the profile of the company to that of an internationally respected one whose repertoire was hugely diverse. In the early years of his directorship, Murphy’s choreography included the first evening length work by an Australian contemporary dance company with Poppy (1978), which looked, inventively, at the life of Jean Cocteau; Glimpses (1976), a work based on the art and writing of Norman Lindsay using a score by Margaret Sutherland; and a very daring Daphnis and Chloe (1980) with designs by Kristian Fredrikson to music by Ravel. Murphy’s commitment to new work, often with an Australian theme, and to collaborating with Australian composers and designers, continued until 2007 when he and Vernon resigned.
Rafael Bonachela joined the company as artistic director in 2009. His first program in Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary year consists of a new work of his own, Cinco; another brand-new work, Neon Aether, from Gabrielle Nankivell; and WOOF from Melanie Lane, which was first seen in 2017 as part of Sydney Dance Company’s experimental choreographic season, New Breed. Canberra audiences will see this program in May.
Cinco, which means five in Spanish, has been created on just five dancers. It is danced to five movements of a string quartet by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, which ‘by chance’ says Bonachela, was written in the 1950s. Bonachela admits that there is something about numbers that fascinates him. He loves the idea that, in this case, the emphasis on the number five is unusually significant. Fashion design Bianca Spender has created the costumes for Cinco. Bonachela says he has admired her work for some time, especially the way her clothes are both structured and fluid. Spender’s Cinco costumes move beautifully with the body, and play with colour and shape.
In 2014 Gabrielle Nankivell made a powerful, idiosyncratic statement with Wildebeest for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season. Now she is back with Neon Aether, which was inspired by aspects of the solar system and science fiction. Nankivell’s partner in life, Luke Smiles, has created an electronic score, which is punctured by voices announcing instructions relating to a journey in space. Those instructions coincide with dramatic blackouts from lighting designer Damien Cooper.
Melanie Lane had a smash hit with WOOF in the New Breed season of 2017, so much so that Bonachela has included it in this 50th anniversary program. It too has a commissioned score, this time by Clark, who is Lane’s partner in life and who prefers to be known, theatrically at least, by just one name. Bonachela describes WOOF as ‘brilliant, powerful and about community and belonging, with a touch of vulnerability.’ Watching it on opening night in Sydney in March it reminded me a little of an absorbing, modern-day Rite of Spring.
There are several Canberra connections to celebrate in this
current season. Bonachela is now a patron of Canberra’s youth dance
organisation, QL2. He accepted the invitation last year, mentioning that he
wanted to mentor young dancers and adding how impressed he had been with
dancers who had come through the various QL2 programs and then joined Sydney
Then there is Melanie Lane. Now with an international reputation, Lane grew up in Canberra and trained at the National Capital Ballet School when it was directed by Janet Karin. Lane recalls Karin’s ongoing interest in new choreography and was inspired to make her own dances as a result. Karin says she felt sure that Lane would go on to choreograph and adds that as a dancer Lane was ‘fluid, sensuous, strong and feminine all in one.’ On opening night of this anniversary program, WOOF was greeted with huge applause and even had Bonachela himself standing, shouting and whistling. Composer of WOOF, Luke Smiles, has a strong connection with Canberra too. He performed as a dancer with Sue Healey’s Vis-à-vis Dance Canberra back in the 1990s.
In addition, Sydney Dance Company, under its various
different names, has been touring to Canberra for almost the entire 50 years of
its existence. In fact, the company’s first season under the name Dance Company
(NSW) was in 1971 in Canberra, when Love
201 with that commissioned score from Peter Sculthorpe was presented.
The program Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane is Bonachela’s tribute to Sydney Dance Company’s commitment to the new in dance. But Sydney Dance Company’s commitment to Canberra is definitely something that also deserves to be celebrated by local audiences. Don’t miss it.
15 March 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Dame Margaret Scott was farewelled with style and grace, and more than a little bit of emotion, in a memorial event arranged by the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School and presented in Melbourne on 15 March 2019.
It began with an initial surprise as we entered the auditorium of the State Theatre. I wondered why we were asked to enter through the door at the back of the auditoriun. Well, it was so that we would properly enjoy the guard of honour made by two rows of young dancers from the Australian Ballet School, the girls dressed in simple white tutus and the boys in black tights and white shirts. They were lined up on each side of the auditorium stretching pretty much from the last row of the stalls down to the stage. On the stage a giant screen had been lowered and we saw an image of a smiling Maggie, full of the joy of life. And standing in the middle of a row close to the front was Maggie’s husband, Professor Derek Denton, watching as we entered.
Following an introduction from Steven Heathcote and an opening tribute from Maggie’s younger son, Angus Denton, reminiscences were given by several of Maggie’s former students and colleagues including Colin Peasley, David McAllister, Graeme Murphy, Marilyn Rowe and Lisa Pavane. Those who auditioned for her as young and hopeful dancers all admitted to being in awe of Maggie at first, but all continued to say how much they had grown to love and respect her.
Interspersed among the spoken tributes were three short performances. The first was Embrace, created by Paulina Quinteros, which was accompanied on the printed program by the phrase ‘For Dick, Matthew and Angus’, to which was added the words ‘Lucky are those who have experienced the sweetness of loving’. It was danced by Chloe Reynolds and Daniel Savetta (with Steven Heathcote playing a small role). Embrace was followed by the Act II pas de deux from Nutcracker. The Story of Clara, danced by Benedicte Bemet and Jarryd Madden. Level 8 students of the Australian Ballet School gave the third performance, a movement from Stephen Baynes’ Ballo Barocco.
But the most moving moments were left till last when a series of images of Maggie, covering the gamut of her life and career, were flashed across the screen.
The end seemed to have been reached when Jim McFarlane’s iconic image from Nutcracker (above left) appeared and all went dark. But no, Earl Carter’s equally iconic Nutcracker image appeared of Maggie rejoicing in the pleasures she experienced in Act I of Nutcracker (above right). Then, from each side of the stage a procession of students, former dancers and others entered and, in single file, moved to the centre of the stage where each placed a single white rose on the floor in front of Maggie’s image before making a slow exit. A beautiful tribute to an exceptional woman.
A State Memorial for Dame Margaret will be held on 22 March at the National Gallery of Victoria International commencing at 10:00 am. My obituary for her is at this link.
Michelle Potter, 17 March 2019
Featured image: Maggie Scott in Gala Performance (detail with text added). From the Ballet Rambert souvenir program for its 1947–1949 Australian tour
I was moved reading Jennifer Shennan’s recent review from Auckland’s Tempo Festival, in which she discussed Douglas Wright’s latest work, M_Nod, and in which she also referred to Wright’s current health issues. My mind went racing back to 1993—it was the year that Wright’s Gloria was first performed in Sydney as part of a Sydney Dance Company season. Those were the days before things were available online and I hunted out the review I wrote of it for Dance Australia. I clearly remember Gloria (who could forget it?), and The Protecting Veil, the work by Graeme Murphy, with which Gloria shared the stage. I am posting the 1993 review below. Reading it now, 25 years and many, many reviews later, there are sections I would probably phrase differently now, but I have resisted changing anything. And I should add that, even though I am focusing my thoughts on Gloria on this occasion, I am in no way wanting to gloss over Murphy’s work, which was equally as thrilling and moving as Wright’s.
The review was originally published in Dance Australia in the issue of February/March 1994.
Truly thrilling GLORIA, THE PROTECTING VEIL Sydney Dance Company Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House November 1993
Douglas Wright’s 1990 piece Gloria and Graeme Murphy’s new The Protecting Veil opened what turned out to be a thrilling season of dance. Gloria, performed to Vivaldi’s choral piece of the same name, is Wright’s tribute to a friend who died at twenty. It is, on the one hand, a joyous piece that celebrates life with an outpouring of dance that is full of vigour and vitality.
Part of the joyous feeling that emerges in Gloria stems from the wit of its choreography and from its tongue-in-cheek irreverence towards the classical vocabulary. Here Wright’s work acknowledges a debt to Paul Taylor with whom Wright performed extensively during the 1980s. There is something very Tayloresque about those moments when a split jete, performed flat out, is followed by a jump that looks as though it will be another of the same but instead turns into a delicious movement in which the dancer appears to be running very fast in mid-air. Or in those other moments when a relatively well known step is followed unexpectedly by a hand- or head-stand.
But in addition to its joyous appearance, Gloria also grieves for a particular life cut off in its prime. This dual theme of joy and sorrow is addressed in movement sequences such as the juxtaposition, early in the piece, of a funereal kind of procession of dancers walking in a square formation with another group dancing in circles in and out of and around the sombre square.
A kind of fragmentation also surfaces in the way that the dance connects, or doesn’t connect with the music. Often a particular choreographic sequence will continue during a pause between sections in the music. Often, too, the audience is faced with a darkened stage, devoid of bodies but filled with music.
In the end, however, Gloria is in praise of life. Its constant use of the circle, both as a choreographic theme and in its lighting design by John Rayment, stresses continuity and its final image of rebirth ensures that we come away with a message that is life-affirming.
TheProtecting Veil, like Gloria, takes its name from the music that accompanies it, in this case John Taverner’s composition for solo cello and strings inspired by ancient Byzantine church music. Murphy has produced a strong work that is theatrical without being excessively so, and that consolidates his position as a choreographer whose originality constantly astonishes the viewer.
In a structure that recalls last year’s Synergy with Synergy, with its constructions and transitions, The Protecting Veil consists of eight movements separated by what are called in the program “crossings”. In the eight movements, duets, trios and quartets alternate with dances for the whole company. A quartet for Lea Francis, Alfred Taahi, Wakako Asano, and Xue-Jun Wang is memorable for the way in which it combines four individualistic bodies and four equally individualistic ways of moving.
The power of the piece, however, is in the crossings. Here Murphy builds up a tension that aligns itself with the mesmeric aspects of Taverner’s score. All the crossings feature Janet Vernon. They are initially brief, tantalising appearances. But they gradually build in length and complexity, culminating in a duet in which Vernon is, in the beginning, partnered by Carl Plaisted through the veil of a scrim cloth. The shrouded movement that results is intrinsically interesting for its novelty, but it also makes the second section of the duet, performed without the protection of the veil, seem crystalline.
The Protecting Veil also relies for its impact on Murphy’s design concept. In addition to the use of scrims to reveal and conceal, the forest of small lights attached to long wires that are alternately lowered and raised during the piece, and the use of a slit backcloth through which bodies, and seemingly dismembered parts of them, appear and disappear are all part of a play with perception that has frequently characterised Murphy’s work. In The Protecting Veil this approach helps produce a piece that exudes the tension and suspense of a religious ritual.
Sydney Dance is looking great. And that’s not surprising considering the challenges presented to the company by Murphy himself and the choreographers he supports.
Michelle Potter, 12 October 2018
Featured image: The portrait of Douglas Wright contained in the header to this post is by John Savage.
In December 2002 I wrote an article, at the request of Bruce Marriott, for ballet.co magazine (now no longer available) to coincide, if I remember correctly, with a conference of artistic directors held in the United Kingdom somewhere (perhaps London?). I think the commission came because David McAllister, then quite new in the role of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, was attending. As with many of my other articles and reviews for ballet.co, I thought it had disappeared from my computer files and I had not made a print out. But just recently it appeared when I was searching with the term ‘Nutcracker’ for another thought-to-be lost file. So I am posting it here and welcome comments from a 2018 perspective.
As artistic directors of some of the world’s best-known ballet companies meet to discuss the issue of globalisation, I am reminded of a now well-known debate that emerged in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s. It concerned the nature of the country’s cultural development. Two camps sprang up: one centred on the idea of the tyranny of distance, the other on the notion that from the deserts the prophets come. Those who spoke for the tyranny of distance believed that Australia was a cultural desert isolated from the great centres of civilisation, especially from the so-called mother country of Great Britain. Those on the other side believed that Australians did not need to rely on their colonists for what they required to nourish their souls—in the midst of their isolation they could have their own uniquely beautiful culture that could define them, equally uniquely, as Australian. This group took as a catch cry some lines from a poem written by renowned Australian poet A. D. Hope in 1960:
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare Springs in that waste.
The debate is historically interesting, and the discussion generated two of the best-known period books on Australian culture and identity: Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance and Geoffrey Serle’s From the Deserts the Prophets Come (later, in an attempt to popularise, or globalise perhaps, the Serle book was renamed The Creative Spirit in Australia).
Advances in technology of various kinds have, of course, made the idea of the tyranny of distance pretty much an obsolete concept. Globalisation, however, is clearly with us: it is part of the fabric of our contemporary existence. It has permeated every aspect of the way we live and operate in the twenty-first century. And while many of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere may still think of Australia as out of scope, few Australians (thankfully) now believe that distance hampers their ability to interact with the rest of the world. So where does this leave the individualism that we rightly prize so highly? What do we do with the savage and scarlet that has so flamboyantly grown? Or even with the green hills if we are on the other side of the world? Do we sit back and allow globalisation to turn what is unique about our individual dance cultures into something bland and universal? Or do we embrace culturalism, accepting that, while communications may have changed the way we operate in the world, our individual cultures cannot develop in a similar way? Do we sit in our theatres from London to Sydney, from New York to Melbourne, all seeing the same works: a Giselle respectfully produced, Manon, a couple of items from Balanchine, The Merry Widow and so on. Or do we each go for something culturally specific (a Murphy Nutcracker, an Ashton work from the early repertoire), and for individualistic reworkings of the tried and true (a Guillem Giselle, a Murphy Swan Lake)? Is one way the only way? The right way? The wrong way?
Neither bowing to globalisation nor strictly adhering to culturalism is the answer. Culturalism smacks of attitudes of superiority and cultural elitism—my culture is better than yours. It closes the mind to innovation and change. It indulges in smugness and name calling (the vile expression ‘Eurotrash’, beloved by one particular British critic, springs immediately to mind). It is a stultifying attitude. On the other hand, globalisation removes what we value about ourselves as individuals in unique cultures, what our specific histories have created and asked us to cherish. But defiantly, ballet is perfectly able to accommodate itself within a global society without losing anything. Ballet isn’t dying. It isn’t even at the crossroads as it encounters globalisation. Ballet is like a sponge. It can soak up change: it has been doing so for centuries. It can absorb new vocabulary. It can keep renewing itself from what it absorbs. It has to be able to operate in this way because it is a living, breathing art form. Even the most superficial glance at photographs of acclaimed dancers in the same role taken over several decades, in Giselle for example, makes it very clear that while we may want Giselle to stay the same—the past is very comforting—it can’t and hasn’t and won’t. In fifty years time dancers won’t want to dance Giselle like Alina Cojocaru (hard as that idea may be to comprehend at the moment).
In the twenty-first century the ballet-going public is entitled to green hills sprinkled liberally with some savage and scarlet (and I mean this more widely, more figuratively, than simply British works sprinkled with Australian ones). Dancers are, for their growth as artists, entitled to experience the work of choreographers outside their immediate, culturally-specific environment. Choreographers are entitled to wonder (and experience) how their works might look when danced by dancers trained outside the choreographer’s home country: the great ones do (and have) and are open and generous about the experience, as any dancer from the Australian Ballet who has worked with Jiří Kylián on any work from the Australian Ballet’s Kylián repertoire will tell you. Critics need to open-minded enough to embrace change and innovation while caring about the past. And artistic directors need to understand it all! The artistic director of a truly great company needs courage, intelligence and drive. Courage not to be swayed from his or her vision. Intelligence to have a vision that looks both forward and in a lateral direction and, going hand-in-hand, intelligence to understand that looking in this manner and direction is not a denial of the past. Drive to put the vision into practice.
Globalisation is a much-maligned concept. It doesn’t have to exclude anything really. But to react to globalisation uncritically, and to allow it to dictate to us is the problem. To do this is to lack courage, intelligence and drive. That we can see new works and restagings of old ones from London to Sydney, New York to Melbourne is a gift of globalisation. If we wish to deny that gift by insisting on culturalism it is a measure of an inability to exist in a global culture, in today’s culture, and a pitifully conservative attitude. But one thing is certain, whatever the response of individual people ballet will keep moving forward. It will never fall victim to a narrow culturalism. Only people will do that. Let’s hope that the new breed of artistic directors understands.
Michelle Potter, December 2002, reposted 14 June 2018
14 April 2018 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
I had the pleasure of seeing Murphy for a second time, this time in Sydney at a mid-season matinee and in a top-notch seat (as a result of many years of subscribing and slowly moving forward into a great position).
Much, if not all, that I wrote after the Melbourne opening still stands. One or two performers, however, stood out for me on this second occasion. In Grand, ‘Alligator Crawl’ by Fats Waller was wonderfully danced by George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu. Xu in particular made the most of the opportunity and looked smart and sassy, as was appropriate in the jazz situation that the music demanded. Then, Yuumi Yamada and Andrew Killian danced beautifully in the duet to the Beethoven ‘Lento e mesto’ from his Piano Sonata in D major. There was a certain vulnerability in the way Yamada moved and yet technically her dancing was strong. Killian was a perfect partner in this situation.
I also omitted to mention the work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet in my previous post. His Reflections, the opening filmed monologue from Murphy, and his introduction to Grand, which showed the incredible Wakako Asano from the Sydney Dance Company production of 2005, were fine examples of Charluet’ work and nostalgic reminders of how exceptional Sydney Dance Company was under Murphy and Vernon.
Shéhérazade, however, remained a disappointment without its silk tent. It might be one thing to perform an excerpt without the full set, which if I recall correctly was the case in Body of Work (2002) when just the opening pas de deux was performed. But the Murphy program presented the full work and it truly lost its mysterious and erotic quality without the original set.
Here is part of what Kristian Fredrikson wrote about the set: ‘Blue silk tent with applied gold patterns, a silk sling, a rope, 4 watchers on illuminated perspex—glittering gauze.’ And here is his description of one highlight where the silk plays a significant role in the choreography: ‘A girl arises from her silk trapeze and dances a yearning solo … at two points of the solo the girl is mirror-imaged by the first girl who slips in and out of the gauze.’ It would have been respectful, as well as giving audiences a true picture of what Shéhérazade was really like, had there been some effort to reproduce the original set.
Note: The National Library of Australia holds some colour photographs from the first performances (1979) of Shéhérazade taken by Don McMurdo, which show the blue tent with its gold designs. I have made concerted and repeated efforts to get permission to use them but I have had no response from the copyright owner. The National Library holds them in trust only and Don McMurdo’s permission is not sufficient. I still hold out hope that one day the Sydney Opera House’s legal team will respond.
UPDATE June 2020: It turns out that the National Library’s images are not from 1979 but from a revival in 1987. I have Janet Vernon and Chrissa Keramidas to thank for this information. One of the images appears in my book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer (with permission from and payment to the Sydney Opera House Trust).