Dance diary. April 2022

  • Australian Dance Week 2022

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.

Scene from Unavoidable casualty. QL2 Dance, 2022. Photo: © Lorna Sim
  • 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

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

And the dance goes on …

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’s Tragedy 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.

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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’.

Michelle Potter, 8 March 2022

The Frock. MADE

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.

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2021

Featured image: Scene from The Frock. MADE 2017. Photo: © Sandi Sissell


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.

Dance diary. July 2021

  • La Bayadère. A problematic ballet?

Houston Ballet has, as a result of concerns and protests from various groups, removed its production of La Bayadère from its current season. The ballet looks back to the nineteenth century when ‘orientalism’ or interest in ‘exotic lands’ beyond Europe was a much-used theme in ballets and other theatrical productions. Recent media reports from Houston have suggested that the ballet contains ‘orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless cultural appropriation, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing’ and more.

In Australia, in addition to the middle act, ‘Kingdom of the Shades’, which has often been seen out of its context within the full-length ballet, we have seen three different productions of the full-length Bayadère. Two have been performed by the Australian Ballet—Natalia Makarova’s production staged by Makarova herself during the directorship of Ross Stretton and seen in 1998, and Stanton Welch’s production made originally for Houston Ballet, which is the one recently cancelled, staged on the Australian Ballet in 2014. As well, Greg Horsman produced a new version for Queensland Ballet in 2018.

I have no intention of commenting on the issues raised in Houston, although I am especially interested in ideas about cultural appropriation. But I will say that I thought Greg Horsman’s rethink of the work for Queensland Ballet was a winner from a number of points of view. Horsman has commented to me that he thought his restaging was not, in general, well received. Horsman’s version turned the story on its head somewhat and gave audiences much to ponder, so it is a shame that it hasn’t been shown and discussed more widely. Here is a link to my review of the Horsman production.

Front cloth for Queensland Ballet's 'La Bayadere'. Design Gary Harris
Gary Harris’ front cloth for Greg Horsman’s 2018 production of La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet

  • Philip Chatfield (1927–2021)

Philip Chatfield, who has died aged 93 on the Gold Coast just south of Brisbane, came to Australia in 1958 on the momentous tour by the Royal Ballet. He and his wife, Rowena Jackson, stand out in my memories of that tour, especially for the roles of Swanilda and Franz in Coppélia. Just a few months before they left London on that tour, Chatfield and Jackson married and at the end of the tour settled in New Zealand where Jackson was born. Chatfield became artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (1975–1978) and they both taught at the National Ballet School, now New Zealand School of Dance. Chatfield and Jackson moved to the Gold Coast in 1993 in order to be closer to family members.

Jennifer Shennan’s obituary for Chatfield is not yet available, but a link will be added in due course. UPDATE: Follow this link to read the obituary.

For more on the Royal Ballet’s Australasian tour of 1958–1959 see this link. There is contentious material contained in that post and in the several comments it received (although not about Chatfield and Jackson).

  • Sydney Choreographic Centre

The recently established Sydney Choreographic Centre, a project headed by artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and managing director Neil Christopher, has moved into its new premises in Alexandria, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. It will be the home of the Sydney Choreographic Ensemble and will offer a range of courses and open classes. A launch has been postponed due to the Sydney lockdown.

For more information about the Centre, and the courses that will commence once covid restrictions have been lifted, see the Centre’s website at this link.

  • And we danced

The third episode of And We Danced, a three part documentary charting the growth of the Australian Ballet, has now been released and all three episodes are currently available (for a limited time) on ABCiview. The second episode remains in my mind the strongest and most interesting, but the third episode does contain some interesting material and again has a focus on social and political matters as they have affected the Australian Ballet. A longer post on the third session follows soon but at this stage I can’t help but mention how moving I found the archival footage of Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Goldsmith was the original Odette in this production and her immersion in the role was exceptional.

Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2002. Photo: © Jim McFarlane
  • Late addition

For just the second time in 60 or so years of watching dance (and even performing it), I walked out of a show. I found Joel Bray’s I liked it but …. unwatchable. I left because I really couldn’t accept the way that various dance styles were described. Perhaps it changed later after I had left, I don’t know, but basically I am opposed to dance, in whatever format, being put down, often in a way that seems ignorant of the true nature of that format.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2021

Featured image: Ako Kondo in Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Dance diary. December 2020

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.

Adam Bull as the Prince in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake March in 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.

Australian Dance Party in a moment from Lake March. Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

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.

Dancers from the Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
  • 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.

  • Site news

At this time of year it is always interesting to look back at which posts were most popular over the course of the year. Leading post was the obituary for Athol Willoughy (and 2020 is not the first year that an obituary has taken first place). Following on were Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring (still popular after all these years); Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet; Terrain. Bangarra Dance Theatre; and Moon Water. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

Most visits came from Australia followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and France.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

Featured image: Gum blossoms, Canberra, 2007 (detail). Photo: © Nick Potter

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Book review

Kristian Fredrikson, Designer by Michelle Potter
Melbourne Books. AUD 59.95

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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.

Tutu for Princess Odile in Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1985. The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Gift of Royal New Zealand 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.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook and Peter Pan in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan, 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson

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.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not identified. Courtesy Arthur Turnbull LIbrary, Wellington, New Zealand.

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.

Kristian Fredrikson with costumes for Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photo: © Ross Giblin. Courtesy Stuff/The Evening Post

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

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Bennelong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

Dance diary. April 2020

  • Digital streaming

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.

  • Chrissa Keramidas

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.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2020

Featured image: Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Bennelong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey
Marcus Morelli as the Swallow in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet

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.

Adam Bull in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Adam Bull as the Prince in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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.

Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as the Mayor and the Lady Mayoress in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as the Mayor and the Lady Mayoress in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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.

Artists of the Australian Ballet as Reedettes in The Happy Prince, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2020

Featured image: Marcus Morelli as the Little Swallow in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Marcus Morelli as the Swallow in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

* Graeme Murphy quoted in ‘Darling Buds’ in program notes for The Happy Prince.

Sir Jon Trimmer in open conversation with Garry Trinder

by Jennifer Shennan
9 July 2019. New Zealand School of Dance         

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, The Ragtime 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.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Sir Jon Trimmer (left) as Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in Gray Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not known

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 place.

The clearly 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 Thank You.

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.’

Garry Trinder (right) asks a question of Sir Jon Trimmer. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019.

‘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.’

Bill 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]

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig

Sydney Dance Company turns 50

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.

Holly Doyle, Chloe Leong and Charmene Yap in Cinco, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo:
© Wendell Teodoro

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.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in 'Neon Aether'. 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Neon Aether. 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in WOOF, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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 Dance Company.

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.

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2019

Featured image: Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig