David McAllister has through this year, 2023, been Acting Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet—to oversee the process of appointing a permanent Artistic Director, and to stabilise the management situation after both the previous directors, Executive and Artistic, had departed suddenly from their positions at Company.
It’s therefore been timely to be reading Ballet Confidential, to learn about McAllister’s own long-term career as a dancer, then his even longer term as Artistic Director, with the Australian Ballet. As well there is his earlier and more personal memoir, Soar, written with Amanda Dunn, both books published by Thames & Hudson.
McAllister’s writing is eminently accessible, conversational in tone, addressing the reader directly. He keeps a friendly, light, honest and humorous touch throughout—giving the welcome impression that he takes his art, but not himself, seriously. There is sincere respect for the dancers whose dedication and discipline is the seminal part of any company’s achievements—as well as insights into the management and governance responsibilities involved in directing that river of talent.
McAllister is out to debunk the reputation of ballet as an elite theatre art that entices only its afficionados, and he offers numerous encouragements to those who think ballet is strictly for the birds, who don’t attend performances because they ‘can’t hear the words’ to instead give it a go.
New Zealand readers who have followed the fortunes of our own national company across its 70 years cannot help but compare the scale of company size and resources for dance between the two countries. The Australian Ballet has become a flagship company for its country with a number of high-profile and successful international tours to its credit. Our own company has not toured internationally for a number of years (not a Covid-related phenomenon) but anyone who pays attention to the fortunes and woes of ballet companies worldwide will nonetheless know ours as a stalwart and determined 7 decades-long endeavour that has served drama, joy, vivacity, solace, style and beauty to its home audiences.
Ballet Confidential is not intended as a scholarly history of ballet—but it certainly contains much of interest as McAllister traces some of the seminal figures who have featured in Australia’s dancing life. (In this regard I’d have valued an Index for the book—since Soar does include a very good one, and has photos of very high quality on dedicated paper).
The reader can also recognise telling comparisons with New Zealand in other areas—particularly in the acknowledgment of First Peoples’ prominence in historical, cultural and social identity. There is also the issue of the resources given to sport across its many codes, with all the touring of teams and spectators alike, and the wealth of domestic and international media coverage beyond compare. Ever positive in his thinking, McAllister nonetheless points out the striking progress across the past few years in elite sports training, injury prevention and management that are such a near and present issue for sportsfolk and dancers alike, and that the relevant medical practitioners have been able to share their approaches to the challenges common to both callings.
It is wonderful to be reminded of AB’s major seasons of commissioned full-length choreographies. Graeme Murphy is the shining star in the firmament there—with his extraordinary Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, and the celebrated Swan Lake. (Lucky those of us who crossed the Tasman to see the latter—and top marks to those who made the feature film of Clara, so we have been able to see that too. It’s available for viewing on Vimeo through AB website).
David tells the story of being a young dancer in his first year at the Company, 1983, cast in Le Conservatoire, the Bournonville work staged by Poul Gnatt on Australian Ballet. (He had earlier staged it on the Australian Ballet School during the 1960s). David enjoys the symmetry and longevity of that association through being Interim AD of the company Gnatt founded here in 1953—’so Poul is still giving me the chance to do something worthwhile all these decades later’.
The announcement just last week of the new Artistic Director of RNZBallet, Ty King-Wall, a New Zealander with many years’ experience in Australian Ballet, is most welcome, and my heart skipped a beat of joy (is that what a cardiologist would say?) to read in King-Wall’s profile that he has danced lead roles in Bournonville choreographies over the years, so he understands the technique and style of our company’s original tradition.
There are other names to slip in here of the ballet links between our two countries and two companies—apart from van Praagh and Gnatt, and Borovanksy before them—that includes sharing Bryan Ashbridge, Jon Trimmer, Jacqui Trimmer, Harry Haythorne, Roy Wilson, Susan Elston, Fiona Tonkin, Graeme Murphy, Jane Casson, Martin James, Adrian Burnett, David McAllister, and now Ty King-Wall with his dancing wife, Amber Scott. These are ties that bind.
Jennifer Shennan, 17 September 2023
Featured image: David McAllister, 2019. Photo: Georges Antoni
Unintentionally, this month’s dance diary has a focus on retirements, resignations, the act of moving on and other activities associated with change. Dance is a moving art form.
Adam Bull retires
Adam Bull, principal with the Australian Ballet since 2008, has announced his retirement from the company at the end of June 2023. Bull has danced major roles in classical and contemporary works across the range of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire including works by Kenneth MacMillan, George Balanchine, Graeme Murphy, Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor. Jiri Kylian, David McAllister, Alice Topp and others. His final performance will be in Melbourne in June in Topp’s new work Paragon, part of the 2023 triple bill Identity.
I have admired Bull’s performances whenever I have seen him, including in roles that have occasionally had not so much dancing in them. His performance as the figure of Death in Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet stands out for example. Then, still clear in my mind is his performance with Lana Jones in Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, which did require a lot of dancing, as did his role in Alice Topp’s Aurum! And perhaps not so well known, since it only ever had eight performances in Brisbane, was his role of the Prince in Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince.
His artistry has crossed boundaries and his presence will be missed. Who knows when and where we might see him again?
I was a little taken aback I have to say to learn that Jacob Nash, designer for Bangarra for more than ten years, is moving on. I have admired Nash’s contribution to Bangarra in many situations and in my discussion of Stephen Page’s 2015 film Spear I wrote of Nash’s contribution, ‘As in his sets for Bangarra’s live shows, Nash has brought to the film an understanding of the power of minimalism in design.’ But I also remember very clearly seeing an installation in an exhibition, Ecocentrix. Indigenous Arts, Sustainable Acts, in London in 2013, in which his contribution was not especially minimal. Nash’s work on this occasion was multi-layered and quite mysterious in its impact. Below on the left is an image of that installation, while on the right is his set design for the 2016 work Miyangan. I look forward to seeing more of Nash’s art wherever he continues to practice.
Artistic director of West Australian Ballet, Aurelian Scannella, will leave the company at the end of 2023. Scannella has been with West Australian Ballet for ten years and has been responsible for introducing many new works as well as staging the classics. Taking his place in 2024, for what is listed as a temporary appointment, will be David McAllister currently on a temporary appointment as artistic director with Royal New Zealand Ballet in Wellington following the retirement of former director Patricia Barker.
More on Don Quixote
After watching the streaming of the 2023 staging of Don Quixote I was inspired to go back to watch again the film made in 1972. But I also went back to two oral history interviews I recorded for the National Library of Australia: one with Lucette Aldous in 1999, and one with Gailene Stock in 2012. Both Aldous and Stock talk about their experiences during the making of the film—Aldous at some length, Stock about a particular incident relating to Nureyev. Both interviews are available online and, with each one, the section of the interview relating to the film is easily accessible by keying ‘Don Quixote’ into the search box at the beginning of each interview (after accepting the conditions of the licence agreement). Happy listening. It’s worth it!
Canadian-born dancer, Lynn Seymour, has died in London aged 83. Seymour had an extensive career as a principal dancer with several major ballet companies. There are a number of obituaries available online and here is a link to the one I admire most, written by Jane Pritchard for The Guardian.
None of the obituaries that I have read mentions Seymour’s appearances in Australia and New Zealand during a Royal Ballet tour in 1958 and 1959 but she made her debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake during that tour and garnered mostly excellent reviews. My previous discussions of Seymour on this website, which relate to that tour, were written early in 2017 and have been somewhat controversial. But they continue to be accessed six years later. See this link, which also contains a link back to the controversy.
2023 marks Rafael Bonachela’s fifteenth year as artistic director of Sydney Dance Company and he has announced that he will continue in the role for another five years. The 2023 season will open with a triple bill called Ascent co-commissioned by the Canberra Theatre Centre. As such it will have its opening performances in Canberra followed by a season at the Sydney Opera House as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the House.
Ascent will feature a brand-new work by Bonachela, the return of Forever and Ever by Antony Hamilton, first shown in 2018, and a world premiere by Spanish choreographer Marina Mascarell. Of the program Bonachela says, ‘After the challenges of the past few years, I am so pleased to again be commissioning an international artist whose works have garnered critical acclaim around the world, alongside showcasing the work of a brilliant Australian choreographer.’
And I am so pleased that Canberra will be the city hosting the premiere of Ascent. Sydney Dance Company has been touring to Canberra pretty much annually (last year, 2021, is the only exception that stands out in my mind) since the 1970s. It is great to see this initiative, for which we must acknowledge the Canberra Theatre Trust for its co-commission.
Further information on the 2023 season is available on the Sydney Dance Company website. It includes information on the company’s regional tour, and its season of Up Close, a new venture to bring the company and audiences closer together and which will include a new work from Bonachela called Somos (meaning ‘we are’ in Spanish).
Launch of Glimpses of Graeme
Hobart, more specifically the Battery Point Community Hall, was the site for the launch of my latest book, Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy. The event was beautifully hosted by the Hobart Bookshop and it was a full house for the conversation between Graeme and me, which was moderated by Lucinda Sharp. Also featured were two short excerpts from works created for MADE by Murphy and danced by Sue Pickard and Laura Della-Pasqua, the official launch by Shirley Gibson from MADE, and a book signing.
In the image below, taken at the end of the event, see (l-r) Lucinda Sharp, dancer Susan Pickard, Michelle Potter, Graeme Murphy, Bronwyn Chalke (owner of Hobart Bookshop), dancer Laura Della-Pasqua (at rear), Shirley Gibson from MADE who did the official launch, and Janet Vernon.
Copies of Glimpses of Graeme are available from FortySouth online book store at this link.
Eileen Kramer turns 108
Early in November Eileen Kramer, once a dancer with Gertrud Bodenwieser, celebrated her 108th birthday. These days she works closely with film maker Sue Healey and a group of close friends in Sydney, where she currently lives.
See this tag for posts about Kramer on this site. My favourite is a link to a film made by Healey in 2017, which won an Australian Dance Award. Happy returns to Eileen Kramer.
News from James Batchelor
James Batchelor’s Shortcuts to familiar places premiered in Berlin in October and was toured to Bangkok in November. Batchelor has recently shared two comments on the work, including one from Australian dance artist Alice Heyward. Heyward’s essay is beautifully and thoughtfully written and constructed and so worth reading. Here is the link.
Book by Michelle Potter. Published by FortySouth Publishing, Tasmania reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
The first word of appreciation for this book should go to its design and visual appeal. A well-made paperback volume of good weight and proportion, it feels right in the hand, and its pages stay open (instead of closing themselves as typical paperbacks annoyingly do). In addition the ink of the text sits bright on the page rather than being absorbed into the paper, so that by running your hand over the page you discover a kind of braille, a little dance for your fingertips, in a haptic pleasure I don’t recall noticing in other volumes (clever designer).
The front cover image is Murphy the man, in dance profile and grinning, the back cover Graeme the young schoolboy, smiling his pleasure for the ice cream sundae he has just enjoyed. The front endpaper has a curtain-call lineup of applause—the back endpaper has Murphy acknowledging that applause—with a facing image of Graeme and his life and work partner, Janet Vernon, back to back. Their combined lifetime contribution to dance in Australia receives tribute in every chapter of the book (heroic couple, generous author).
The frontispiece photo has Graeme Murphy en l’air, not in some balletic cliché of soaring jeté or flying leap, limbs outspread, striving beyond gravity, where aspiration replaces destination. This is not any role performed but the man himself, right here, right now, in the middle of the page, looking straight at you, the reader. Hello.
Simultaneous movement in both upward and downward directions is implied. The single vertical stroke of the svelte elevated dancer in white trousers and loose-lapelled jacket, legs pointing down with pencil sharp engaged feet in an exquisite fifth position displaying all the stylised turnout that ballet requires of a dancer, (but none of the distorted overarched eagle feet sometimes displayed by those more interested in virtuosity than in dialogue or eloquence). Meantime the upper body is that of a relaxed and graceful man, hands tucked into large pockets, an enigmatic smile hovering around his lips. The floor is not shown in the photo so the image is of a dancer enduringly airborne, not one ounce of the effort involved in an elevation of this order allowed to show. Dancing masters of the Italian Renaissance had a term for this quality—sprezzatura/‘divine nonchalance’—as though to say ‘Look—leaping like this is as easy as breathing. I’ll teach you how to do it if you like.’ Yeah right. It’s a graceful yet wonderfully cheeky portrait, inviting readers into the book (gifted dancer, clever photographer). I savoured the photo for a day before starting to read the text. Felt as though I had been dancing.
The book title is borrowed from Murphy’s first major choreography, Glimpses, 1976. The astonishing photograph from that work reveals his early theatrical vision, with Janet Vernon standing tall on the chest of dancer Ross Stretton.
Eight chapters celebrate Murphy’s choreographic works in thematic rather than chronological treatment, mainly through excerpts selected from reviews Michelle has written over the years. It has been a colossal choreographed body of work. Over and over Murphy’s collaborations with design artists and composers are acknowledged and there is much discussion of the Australian content within the works, by dint of those collaborations rather than simply in local narratives or settings.
I thoroughly enjoyed reminders of those of Murphy’s works we have seen in New Zealand — with design by Kristian Fredrikson, the striking Orpheus for the RNZBallet’s celebrated Stravinsky centenary season in 1982, devised by artistic director Harry Haythorne. Our company also staged The Protecting Veil the following decade. Sydney Dance Company visited with Shining (I recall a mighty performance from New Zealand dancer Alfred Williams). They returned with Some Rooms, a fine work which appealed to audiences wider than just dance aficionados. Berlin was a major work that well warranted the trip to Auckland then, so of interest now to learn of the creative processes of its music ( with Iva Davies and Icehouse) and design (by Andrew Carter).
I also saw Mythologia in Sydney, 2000, though I retain much livelier memories of the inspired Nutcracker, The Story of Clara, and of the remarkable Swan Lake for Australian Ballet. Harry Haythorne had roles in these two works, but it was his tap-dancing-on-roller-skates routine in Tivoli that warranted yet another trip across the Tasman, to see the hilariously entertaining yet simultaneously poignant production. The closing image has never left me.
It’s also a good memory that Murphy invited New Zealand choreographer Douglas Wright to stage his legendary Gloria, to Vivaldi, on Sydney Dance Company.
Once when I was visiting Harry in Melbourne, he took a phone call from Graeme and I recall a very long conversation, more than an hour, with loads of laughter while Harry winked and indicated I should continue browsing his bookshelf. They were clearly best of mates with a great deal of respect for each other’s work.
There’s another synergy one can appreciate: Graeme’s work, Grand, was made for and dedicated to his mother—and Michelle has made and dedicated this book to her own mother who died recently.
The book’s text is succinct and its themes clearly delineated. My paraphrasing would not be nearly as useful as my encouragement to you to find and enjoy it for yourself (lucky reader).
Jennifer Shennan, 19 November 2022
Featured image: Cover image (excerpt) of Glimpses of Graeme. Full cover reproduced below.
My latest book, Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, is now available at the FortySouth online store. This is a ‘niche book’ and only 350 copies have been printed. Buy your copy soon. Here is the link to the FortySouth store.
Glimpses of Graeme will be launched in Hobart on 18 November at which MADE (Mature Artists Dance Experience) will perform excerpts from works created for them by Murphy. For more information about the launch follow this link. Scroll down to find news of the event.
See below for a short video, created by Philippe Charluet, showing snippets from several of the works discussed in the book. In addition to showcasing the dancers from Sydney Dance Company, the footage includes music and performance by Synergy musicians.
Michelle Potter, 4 October 2022. Updated 22 October 2022
This month’s dance diary has, with one significant exception, a Canberra focus, from news about writing by Canberra-based authors (including me) to performances generated, or soon to be performed from within the ACT.
Glimpses of Graeme
My book, Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, is currently being printed and will be available shortly from the Hobart-based company FortySouth Publishing. The book is a collection of articles and reviews I have written over several decades about Murphy’s career. The writing is arranged according to themes I think are noticeable in Murphy’s output, including ’Music Initiatives’, ’Crossing Generations’, ’Approaches to Narrative’ and ’Postmodernism’.
This month’s featured image shows Murphy and cast taking a curtain call following a performance in 2014 of Murphy’s Swan Lake. The image, shot by Lisa Tomasetti, fills the inside cover (front and back) of the book. More information on how to secure your copy will appear shortly.
UPDATE, 4 October 2022: The book is now for sale at the FortySouth online shop. Only 350 copies have been printed so buy your copy soon at this link.
Parijatham from the Kuchipudi dance repertoire
Canberra’s Sadhanalaya School of Arts is bringing Parijatham, a timeless, iconic dance drama in the classical Indian dance style, Kuchipudi, to the stage in early November. It tells the story of conflict created between two of Lord Krishna’s consorts, Queen Rukmini and Queen Satyabhama. It is set to classical South Indian music and is one of 15 dance dramas from the admired choreographer, Dr Vempati Chinnasatyam.
In the image above, Lord Krishna, played by Divyusha Polepalli tries to pacify the enraged Queen Satyabhama, played by Sadhanalaya School of Arts Director Vanaja Dasika, after she discovers Krishna has given his favourite consort Queen Rukmini a divine parijatha (jasmine) flower instead of giving it to her.
The work will have two performances only on 6 November at the Gungahlin College Theatre. Book at this link.
Canberra writer, John Anderson, has been researching for a number of years the life and career of Daphne Deane, an Australian with extensive experience in the presentation of theatrical activities around the world in the first half of the 20th century. I first came across the name Daphne Deane when researching the history if the Ballet Russes companies and their visits to Australia between 1936 and 1940 but very little appeared to have been written and published about her life and activities.
John Anderson’s book is nothing short of an eye-opener! We have much to learn about a woman who was all but written out of most of the historical accounts of the visits to Australia by the Ballets Russes companies, but whose activities during and beyond those visits were extensive. Anderson notes, for example, that Arnold Haskell’s book, Dancing round the world, which has become ’the putative history’ of the 1936-1937 tour to Australia simply ignores Deane by not mentioning her once. Anderson writes, ‘Deane effectively became a woman who never was, written out of the record of the tour’ and later ’In Haskell’s significant omission, we can see the beginnings of a man-made amnesia about Deane’s part in the tour.’
Anderson’s book is available, free to read and download, as an e-text via Trove. Follow this link.
Dance.Focus 22—Film Premieres
Dance Hub SA and Ausdance ACT recently partnered to commission five filmmakers to produce a short film to ’challenge, resonate and engage with screen dance.’ The films premiered on five consecutive evenings and are now available to watch via YouTube. More information and links to the five films are here.
I especially enjoyed Son; Like Mother; Like Son danced by Petra Szabo Heath with her son Rowan and filmed by Tim Baroff with music by Rian Teoh. The outdoor setting was stunning and nicely juxtaposed with an indoor one, and the work reminded me of a comment once made by Graeme Murphy, ’We all dance from the moment we are born.’ But there was also rather more dancing in this short film than in most of the others in this series, which made me wonder what screen dance is, or how those who make screen dance conceive of its dance component.
Promotions at Queensland Ballet
And on a non-Canberra note, but one I am really pleased to include, Queensland Ballet has just promoted Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé to principal artists. Both dancers have been dancing superbly recently and the promotions are well deserved.
As it happens, I have been following Heathcote’s progress since she was at the Australian Ballet School when she appeared in a program called Let’s Dance in 2012. See this link (it includes a gorgeous photo of Heathcote from Tim Harbour’s work, Sweedeedee). See also tags for Heathcote and Revé.
A new book, Cranko. The Man and his Choreography by Ashley Killar is due to be released in London next month. Killar, who danced extensively with Stuttgart Ballet when John Cranko was the company’s artistic director, presents a detailed and extensively researched analysis of the life and career of Cranko, going right back to his childhood in South Africa. The book will also have an Australian launch in December, coinciding with the production of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet as part of the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season. At present the book can be pre-ordered from Book Depository or from the British publisher at this link. In Australia it will initially be available through Bloch Dance stores.
Read more about the book at this link, where you’ll find some unexpected items, including recipes (and see above an image of Cranko as chef).
Douglas Wright’s Gloria
The latest news from CO3, the Perth-based contemporary company led by Raewyn Hill, is that the company will be staging Douglas Wright’s Gloria in September.
Here is what Jennifer Shennan wrote about Gloria in 2004, which she updated for Raewyn Hill just recently:
Gloria—by Douglas Wright & Antonio Vivaldi
To Vivaldi’s exuberant music, Douglas Wright made Gloria, the best dance ever choreographed in New Zealand. It affirms and celebrates life as it is on Earth. Dancers clad in gold silk launch themselves into the air and seem to stay there, flying over each other in twists and plaits, bodies somehow freed from gravity, aiming for the stars, hitting the sun.
Douglas was commissioned by his friend Helen Aldridge to choreograph a work commemorating the life of her daughter, and also his friend, Deirdre Mummery, who had died of an accidental drug overdose.
Helen did not know what might result—a lament? an elegy? commiseration? She could scarcely have imagined the ecstasy and expression of life’s force as these exquisite dancers walk then run, lean then leap, lift then fall, roll then rise, turn then hold, shimmer then fly.
The physical stamina required is phenomenal but not for a moment do we sense any struggle. The choreography is woven of exquisite lines and loops, allowing the dancers to embrace every baroque quaver in the light and shade of Vivaldi’s Gloria. It affirms and celebrates life as it is in Heaven, where Deirdre and Douglas now live.
Written by Jennifer Shennan in 2004, for BEST—a New Zealand compendium [AWA Press 2004]; reworked for Raewyn Hill, August 2022
My review from 1993, when Gloria was staged by Sydney Dance Company along with Graeme Murphy’s Protecting Veil, is at this link. See also the tag Douglas Wright for more about Wright’s work as it appears on this website.
Further information about the CO3 staging is available on the company’s website.
News from James Batchelor
Short Cuts to Familiar Places, James Batchelor’s latest work, will receive its world premiere in Düsseldorf, Germany, in October. The work investigates the concept of ‘body lineage’ and, in his media release, Batchelor describes it as exploring ‘the idea of the body as a site of inscription, a morphing map or text that is continuously re-drawn and re-written’.
Batchelor has been researching the background for this work for a year or so now and he has given particular focus to the work of his teacher at Canberra’s QL2, Ruth Osborne, and her connections through her own teacher, Margaret Chapple. Chappie, as she was familiarly known, was a student of and dancer with Gertrud Bodenwieser and, after Bodenwieser’s death, directed (with Keith Bain) the Bodenwieser Dance Centre in Sydney. Batchelor has also worked with, and considered the heritage of others with connections to Bodenwieser including Eileen Kramer and Carol Brown.
With luck Short Cuts to Familiar Places will eventually be shown in Australia. Stay tuned.
Production credits (from the media release): CHOREOGRAPHY, PERFORMANCE James Batchelor DRAMATURGY, PRODUCTION Bek Berger COMPOSITION Morgan Hickinbotham PERFORMANCE Chloe Chignell LIGHT DESIGN Vinny Jones COSTUME DESIGN Juliane König CHOREOGRAPHIC CONSULTATION Ruth Osborne, Eileen Kramer, Carol Brown RESEARCH CONSULTATION Michelle Potter
The end of an era?
It was something of a shock to learn that the world renown dance magazine Dancing Times will publish its very last issue next month, September 2022. The London-based magazine with an international reach was established in 1910 when its predecessor, a house magazine of the Cavendish Rooms, was bought by founding Dancing Times editor P. J. S. Richardson. Since then it has had other editors with the present holder of the position being Jonathan Gray. Current production editor of the magazine, Simon Turner, writes:
Sadly, since 2020, the tremendous economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the rapid increase in costs over the past year, means that the magazine is no longer financially viable in its current form.
The news has shocked the international dance world of course and we have to hope that the same fate does not occur with Dance Australia, which already has reduced its schedule from a print version every two months to one every three months.
But on different although related issue, dance reviews and articles in print outlets in Australia (and elsewhere?), especially those by knowledgeable contributors, seem to be slowly disappearing. Another end to an era? I was struck by a recent notification from the Sydney Opera House of an event due to take place in September called ‘How do you solve a problem like the media?’ Despite the clear allusion in the title to a well-known song and by extension to the arts, this event appears to be focusing on politics, with which I have no issues of course. But the opening remark in the advertisement for the occasion, ‘The media has gone through a huge upheaval in recent decades. Now we’re starting to see the effects …’, applies equally to the arts, and to dance in particular, which scarcely ever gets an informed and in depth mention, even in online outlets associated with newspapers.
Liz Lea at the Edinburgh Fringe
As mentioned in the July dance diary, Liz Lea’s RED was set to be part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and RED took the stage from 16-28 August. Read Helen Musa’s review of the Edinburgh show for Canberra City News at this link. And in the light of my comments above re the disappearance of the arts from print outlets, we are lucky in Canberra that City News, which has a weekly print edition as well as an online presence, still sees fit to carry news and reviews about the arts, including dance.
Glimpses of Graeme. Another new book
My next book is currently being designed, although a release date is not yet available. Called Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, it consists of a selection of reviews and articles I have written about Murphy and his works. Rather than gathering the pieces together chronologically, as is often the case with such collections, I have arranged them in chapters that reflect themes that I believe characterise Murphy’s oeuvre. More later.
Michelle Potter, 31 August 2022
Featured image: The chair Cranko used for rehearsals in Stuttgart. From Ashley Killar’s website regarding his book.
Ausdance ACT has welcomed the beginning of Dance Week with an opening event held at Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra, on International Dance Day, 29 April.
Following this celebratory opening, the ACT organisation has programmed a varied selection of events over the week until 8 May. The program reflects the current focus in the ACT on community dance and dance for people with varying skills and interests throughout that community. There is a strong focus in the 2022 program on classes to try and workshops to experience. One of the most fascinating to my mind happens on 1 May and is the Chinese Tiger and Lion Dance Workshop—not something that is offered often! See the full program at this link.
In addition, QL2 Dance launched, also on 29 April, a 12 minute film, Unavoidable casualty. This film examines ways in which young dancers might express how they have felt and managed difficult, even traumatic events they have experienced, or seen others experience. Unavoidable casualty is available to watch until 8 May at this link. Watch to the end to see a beautiful finishing section in which some of the dancers are introduced one by one. Choreography is by Stephen Gow and Ruth Osborne.
A story from my past
In 2019 I was in New York briefly for the celebration of 75 years of the Dance Division of the New York Public Library. As part of the event I was asked to talk about the acquisitions I especially remember from my time as curator there. It brought back memories of a rather amazing visit I made to a gallery in downtown Manhattan in 2007.
A small but significant collection of posters from the 1960s to the 1980s for performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was being prepared for sale in the gallery. They were the work of some of those truly exceptional artists who collaborated with MCDC during those decades: Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Morris Graves, Jasper Johns and others. The suggestion came that I should go down to this gallery and see if there was any material I would like for the Dance Division. So off I went. There I was met by Julian Lethbridge, himself a fine artist. Julian introduced me to the gentleman who was hanging the show. There he was up a ladder in his jeans. ‘Oh Michelle,’ Julian said. ‘I’d like you to meet Jasper Johns.’ Only in New York, I thought to myself.
But apart from the shock that the man up the ladder in jeans was Jasper Johns, the material was amazing and every poster was signed by Merce. And the escapade was also an example of the philanthropic generosity that keeps the Dance Division running. The items I selected were bought for the Division by Anne Bass and were appropriately hung in the Division’s 2007 exhibition INVENTION Merce Cunningham and collaborators.
I was reminded of this acquisition and the meeting I had with Jasper Johns when just recently I noticed, via Google Analytics, that views of the obituary on this website, which I wrote for Anne in 2020, had been steadily rising (around the second anniversary of her death).
Anna Karenina live (as opposed to the streamed version) left me a little underwhelmed, so I decided not to do a full review but simply to make a few comments. Despite the so-called ’rave reviews’ that have appeared in various places, I found it interesting but not a great production, despite some exceptional design and projections, and some fine dancing. It was highly episodic, which is hardly surprising given the length and depth of the book on which it was based. But for me that episodic nature meant that there was no strong through line to the production. My mind flicked back to Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. It was also episodic in nature as it skipped from place to place, era to era. But one of its great strengths was the addition to the work of the symbolic figure of Death, powerfully performed by Adam Bull. Death constantly hovered in the background and drew the episodes together.
Apart from the problem of the work’s episodic nature, I still find it hard to understand why the ending, which followed Anna’s suicide, was so, so long and featured (and ended with) two secondary characters, Kitty and Levin. Wasn’t the ballet about Anna Karenina?
A new Swan Lake?
As part of a Mothers’ Day promotional email, I discovered that the Australian Ballet is planning a new production of Swan Lake for 2023! I was a little surprised I have to say but will wait to hear more before further comments.
Michelle Potter, 30 April 2022
Featured image: Poster for Ausdance ACT Dance Week 2022
This is a slightly edited version of the text and PowerPoint images for a keynote paper I gave at the 2022 BOLD Festival in Canberra on 3 March 2022
Looking at the opening slide for my talk this morning you may be wondering why, for a keynote talk at a dance-oriented festival, I have chosen an image from a theatre production, Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1975 production of The Revenger’s Tragedy. And perhaps you may be curious as to why I have given it the title ‘And the dance goes on.’ All should, I hope, become clear as we proceed.
But first take a good look at Kristian Fredrikson’s costume design for the Duke in The Revenger’s Tragedy in the slide above. Fredrikson was an exceptional designer and an artist really. No stick figures for him. His designs were drawn as if they were being worn by the particular character in the play, film, dance, opera, or whatever theatrical genre he was working on, and he worked across them all. He did a huge amount of research, and collaboration, before designing and had in his mind a very clear picture of the nature of each particular character. Not only that, his designs are filled with movement, both body movement and the potential movement of the costume. Take a look at the way he has positioned the Duke’s head, thrown back and assertive. Look at the way he has drawn the legs, well-separated as if in movement. Then there are the expressive arms and hands. He has also drawn the costume spread out well —partly of course to show details of the design but also to indicate how the costume, especially the cloak, would move as the Duke strode across the stage. This design will be on show in the National Library’s exhibition On Stage, which opens tomorrow. I encourage you to visit the exhibition. I hope the backstory, which I will discuss shortly, will make seeing the design especially interesting.
On this next slide here are three more costume drawings from the same play, The Revenger’s Tragedy. These are not part of the exhibition but are part of the National Library’s exceptional collection of Fredrikson material, and my talk will focus to a large extent on the National Library’s collections of various materials, including Pictures, Manuscripts, Oral History and Ephemera.
You can see, left to right, Lussurioso, whom one writer has called a ‘lustful jerk’ and who is the Duke’s legitimate son; then the Prison Keeper; then Gratiana, who is the mother of the revenger. I think you can see again an interest in movement in the designs, as well as expressiveness in the way the characters are drawn.
The Revenger’sTragedy is a Jacobean play dating to the very early seventeenth century. It was first performed in London in 1606 and there has been much academic discussion over the years about the author, but the latest understanding is that it was written by one Thomas Middleton. The play centres on lust and ambition in an Italian court and the Revenger of the title, whose name is Vindice, seeks revenge on the Duke for poisoning Gloriana, the woman he loves. This happened several years before the play starts but Vindice has been mulling over it for years. In a convoluted series of events the Duke is poisoned and then stabbed by Vindice. But the Duke’s successor, Lussurioso, is also killed and eventually Vindice is condemned to be executed. This is a very simple outline but you will understand the extent of the killings when I tell you that one reviewer of the Melbourne Theatre Company production wrote: ‘It opens with a bloodcurdling shriek accompanying a tableau vivant and closes with an ironical shrug and a pile of dead bodies.’ As an example of his involvement in works he was designing, Fredrikson wrote his own notes about revenge tragedies, and at one point said: ‘Revenge tragedies require the designer to reach into his or her darkest imaginings and personify not only various of man’s worst sins but also a bizarre nightmare world. They are horror stories in the true sense because they deal with the obsession of revenge which is pursued until it results in massacre.’
It is probably not surprising to anyone here that a genre called ‘revenge tragedy’ ends in tragedy! But this Melbourne Theatre Company production had a surprise outcome and that outcome went on to have long-lasting effects on the growth of dance in Australia. The show was directed by David Myles, an Australian who began his theatrical career in television before heading to London, making a career there and across Europe. He returned to Australia in the 1990s but in 1975 he was in Australia as a guest director for Melbourne Theatre Company. The final orgy scene of The Revenger’s Tragedy needed a choreographer to give it an orgiastic feeling and it was none other than Graeme Murphy who was commissioned to create that scene. Graeme had returned to Australia in 1975 after spending time in Europe, in particular with the Ballets Félix Blaska in Grenoble, France. He and Janet Vernon spent 1975 freelancing before joining the Australian Ballet again in 1976.
I’m going to play you now a brief audio clip from an oral history interview with Kristian Fredrikson, who explains a little about what happened with the choreography.
He makes an error or two in this clip, saying that Graeme was a student or dancer with the Australian Ballet when he was brought in to work on The Revenger’s Tragedy. But, as I have just mentioned, Graeme was actually freelancing in 1975. Fredrikson also doesn’t remember, on the spur of the moment, the name of the director, which I have mentioned was David Myles. Here is how Fredrikson describes what happened.
It is more than interesting to hear him say that the director threw out Graeme’s contribution, but Fredrikson’s memories may be a little exaggerated. A conversation I had with Graeme while I was writing my biography of Fredrikson indicates that much of what he choreographed did become part of the production, and, as you can see from the image below, his name appears as choreographer on the printed program for The Revenger’s Tragedy. But apparently it was not a smooth process. Notice too that the playwright’s name is given as Cyril Tourneur although, as I mentioned scholars now believe that the playwright was Thomas Middleton.
Now, despite the ‘pile of dead bodies’ with which the play closes, and the apparent difficulties David Myles may have had with the choreography, the meeting of Murphy and Fredrikson was a momentous one. While both would pursue independent careers over the years, they would also constantly team up in major collaborative endeavours for a number of theatrical organisations.
As I have mentioned, in 1976 Murphy rejoined the Australian Ballet as a dancer and as the company’s first resident choreographer. But at the end of the year, he was appointed to head the Sydney-based Dance Company (NSW), later to be renamed by Murphy as Sydney Dance Company. Shortly after taking up his appointment, he called Fredrikson, and much to Fredrikson’s pleasure and surprise, offered him a commission to work on a new ballet he was planning, a production of Shéhérazade, not to the well-known score by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as famously used by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, but to a song cycle by Maurice Ravel.
Shéhérazade, which premiered in Sydney in 1979,was, in my opinion, one of the most stunning of the works Murphy made early in his career with Sydney Dance, not only from a choreographic point of view, but also in terms of the collaborative endeavours created together by Murphy and Fredrikson. It certainly got the collaboration off to a good start. Above is an image from the original 1979 production in which both Murphy and Janet Vernon danced.
Shéhérazade was an incredibly erotic work. Brian Hoad, who was dance critic for the now-defunct magazine The Bulletin, called it ‘a choreographic mood painting at its most luscious…it turns out to be one of the most thoroughly bewitching evocations of sensuality ever to grace a stage.’ In the background you can see a hint of lighting and a backcloth and I want to show you the backcloth in more detail and the colour that was involved.
The backcloth was like a tent and four dancers, the Watchers, sat suspended in it. You can see one in the image on the left. They watched the dance unfold below them and shielded their eyes when matters got too erotic. The colour scheme was blue and gold and you can see a design for the tent bottom right of the slide. It’s now part of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, while the two photographic images are part of the National Library’s collections. I’ll play you another audio clip from the Fredrikson oral history in which he talks about designing Shéhérazade. You’ll hear him mention that Gustav Klimt, whose art work, made in Vienna in the early twentieth century, was his inspiration. But also interesting is the way he speaks about the collaboration. ‘Shéhérazade came about in an easy flash’ he says.
So, a result of The Revenger’s Tragedy one spectacular aspect of dance in Australia was born, a collaboration between a choreographer and a designer that resulted in some sensational works over three decades for Sydney Dance Company, the Australian Ballet, and Opera Australia.
Now, there are more designs in the On Stage exhibition that record the Murphy/Fredrikson collaboration, including one or two for Swan Lake and Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. I’m going to focus on Swan Lake, which premiered for the Australian Ballet in 2002.
The Murphy Swan Lake is quite a change from what many had come to see as the ‘normal’ version. The narrative follows the tragic story of a young, vulnerable woman, Odette, who yearns for the loyalty of husband-to-be, Prince Siegfried, but who discovers on the eve of her wedding that Siegfried has a lover, the seductive and possessive Baroness von Rothbart. That discovery marks the beginning of Odette’s mental decline, which takes place in Act I, following the wedding. In Act II Odette is confined to a sanatorium after Siegfried’s mother, a cold and dismissive Queen, calls a doctor towards the end of Act I to attend to Odette’s apparent illness. In the sanatorium Odette is attended by nuns and, at one stage while there, she rocks rhythmically backwards and forwards in a dazed state and has a vision of white swans and a frozen lake. In a scenic transformation we are transported to the lakeside where Odette dances with the swans of her imagination and, meeting Siegfried there, she performs a duet with him. Later she leaves the sanatorium and in Act III arrives at a glittering party hosted by the Baroness and Siegfried. But, although Siegfried ultimately rejects the Baroness and regrets his behaviour towards Odette, Odette believes she can never find peace and in Act IV drowns herself in the lake of which she has dreamt in Act II.
The image on the left on the slide above is a design that you will see in the exhibition from tomorrow onwards. It is for ‘The young duchess’ (or ‘The Young Duchess-to-be’ as she was eventually called when the work went on stage). The costume is what she wore to the ‘glittering party’ hosted by Siegfried and the Baroness in Act III. You can see that it is not so much a work of design art, but a practical drawing that would be used by the wardrobe department when making the costume. It’s interesting to see an Edwardian style in parts of that costume, especially in the high neck and the draped, low-slung bodice. Fredrikson wanted to set this Swan Lake in the Edwardian era, although not every costume had all that much that was recognisable as Edwardian. On the right is a design for the Baroness von Rothbart in Act III, also for the ‘glittering party’—without many Edwardian references, I think. And here is what the Baroness’ costume looked like when made up.
But what is interesting about this Swan Lake is that by this stage, 2002, Fredrikson had become more than a designer for Murphy. They had set up a relationship that went beyond things coming ‘in an easy flash’, as Fredrikson had mentioned in relation to Shéhérazade, to one where Fredrikson had become an essential member of the creative team. He replied by email at one stage to a request from a journalist for information about Swan Lake with these word (and unfortunately I can’t play them as audio since they were written rather than spoken):
‘The actual inspiration for this production came about at our (Graeme, Janet and myself) first brainstorming meeting to see in which direction we wished the story to go so that it would please not only us, but also have an emotive and comprehensible value for the audience. For some time we considered manipulating the tragic story of the imperial family of the Romanovs … but soon discarded this as needing too much distortion to fit the score. Then, secondly, we were well versed in the history of the first production of the ballet and the bitter rivalry between the two ballerinas who first played Odette. This seemed promising as a scenario, but after an amount of discussion we were discouraged by the problems of conveying the romance of the original story. It was Janet who first brought up the obvious fact that this ballet was about Royal Romance and its ultimate despairing failure … So this was our beginning and, although we were determined that this would be no biography of any one particular Royal duo, we would have much material to supply us for Tchaikovsky’s tragedy.’
So,Fredrikson was totally part of the development of the story as well as the designer of sets and costumes. Fredrikson died in 2005 and Swan Lake was his last collaboration with Murphy.
That collaboration had grown and developed over almost three decades and gave the dance world some spectacular productions. And it all began with The Revenger’s Tragedy. My title for this talk … ‘And the dance goes on …’ alludes to the ongoing and developing relationship between Murphy and Fredrikson.
Thank you for coming (or watching if you are online) and I hope you will take the opportunity to visit On Stage, which continues until 7 August, and will find particular enjoyment in looking at the designs by Fredrikson for Murphy productions. There are one or two more that I haven’t had time to discuss. I hope too you might be interested in reading more about the Murphy Connection in my recent book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Chapter 4 is in fact called ‘The Murphy Connection” although the beginnings of the connection form part of Chapter 3, ‘Into the Seventies’.
I didn’t see Graeme Murphy’s 2017 work, The Frock, as a live production. It was fashioned by Murphy and his creative associate Janet Vernon on the Tasmanian group of ‘senior’ dancers, Mature Artists Dance Experience (MADE), a company I have never had the luck to see live either. But some research I have been doing recently aroused my interest and I found a way to see The Frock on film. And what an adventure it was!
The Frock follows the life experiences of a woman who sits at the side of the stage on what looks like the verandah of a house in a rural area of Australia. She watches as her life unfolds before her, although leaves the comfort of her verandah to participate in many of the experiences that play out on stage. She is nameless and is something of an ‘everywoman’ living across several decades, beginning perhaps in the 1950s.
But before those decades begin to unfold choreographically, in the opening section the woman explains the moments that define her situation, especially the dress made by her mother, the frock of the title; and her sexual experience as a teenager (wearing the frock), which resulted in an out-of-marriage pregnancy. Throughout the work the frock appears on a wire mannequin designed by Gerard Manion. The mannequin is a mobilised device (robotics by Paul Fenech) with a voice (that of Murphy) that comments verbally, not always kindly, on what is happening.
The first moment of remarkable dancing comes when the frock is tried on for the first time. We watch as the woman (in real life and in the story in her sixties perhaps) dances a duet with another performer representing the woman as a young girl wearing that frock. Murphy’s choreography is lyrical and emotion-filled movement; not a collection of difficult steps but swinging, swaying movement easily fitting the bodies of those older dancers. It is also the first time we see the backcloth (design by Gerard Manion) that stayed in place for most of the show—a beautiful collection of draped fabrics, lit throughout by Damien Cooper.
From there the decades unfold before us: the ‘swinging sixties’ and seventies, along with the smoking of drugs and the hallucinations that resulted; the rise of feminism; midlife; and the gradual move through the following decades to old age, the ‘Age of Invisibility’. Choreographic highlights included, for me, the rock ‘n roll scenes; the section when the woman contemplates her childless life; the beautiful reunion scene in which the woman and friends from her past come together dancing to Moon River, that evocative song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; a trio as mid-life approaches danced with the aid of lengths of diaphanous cloth; and the extraordinary solo by the woman performed to a poem (written by Murphy) entitled ‘But still I fly’. The poem is heard in the clip below, along with excerpts from various parts of the work.
It was fascinating to see Murphy using some of the techniques that have appeared in so many of his works, including the use of flowing cloth as a device. But also noticeable was the use of linked arms and hands making linear patterns, something that I recall from many of Murphy’s works with Sydney Dance Company. Then there were references (that perhaps I imagined) to Botticelli’s ‘Three Graces’ in his well-known painting Primavera, and even, briefly, to Nijinsky’s choreography for Afternoon of a Faun. (Murphy does this so many times—brings up a mixed bag of ideas, imagined or not).
The sound design by Christopher Gordon with Christo Curtis was brilliantly put together to evoke every moment in every decade. Apart from Moon River, standouts for me were the Sunday School activities of the early moments when the hymn being sung was that well-known Sunday School song, Jesus Loves Me; the Indian inspired music that accompanied the drug and hallucination scenes; and some hugely moving operatic excerpts.
Jennifer Irwin’s costume were also so evocative of the decades being represented as the story proceeded. Especially outstanding from this point of view were those in the scene taking place in the 1960s filled, as it was, with mini-skirted dresses in brightly coloured, floral fabric, sometimes matched with knee high boots in bright colours. How it takes those of a certain age back to their own teenage years.
The Frock might be counted as one of Murphy’s most theatrical productions with so many exceptional collaborative elements, including its hugely diverse selection of musical interludes; its poem ‘But still I fly’; and its robot carrying the storyline line along. But perhaps more than anything it arouses such a range of emotions in the viewer. That to me is theatricality at its best. Sometimes The Frock is quite simply confronting. At other times it is just hilarious. But more than anything it is deeply moving as a comment on life’s many changing situations. I have to admit I started to cry at the end as the woman, and the daughter she had never met, intuitively knew who the other was when they came together unexpectedly in an op shop where both admired that frock hanging on a rack of clothing on sale. But the weeping quickly turned to laughter as the dress was shoplifted out! Magnificent Murphy.
Postscript: I should add that a complete version of The Frock is not publicly available at this stage, although a promo is available on Vimeo, beautifully put together by Philippe Charluet of Stella Motion Pitures.
The poster image below announces the premiere of the work in Japan in 2018.