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

Memorial for Dame Margaret Scott

15 March 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Dame Margaret Scott was farewelled with style and grace, and more than a little bit of emotion, in a memorial event arranged by the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School and presented in Melbourne on 15 March 2019.

It began with an initial surprise as we entered the auditorium of the State Theatre. I wondered why we were asked to enter through the door at the back of the auditoriun. Well, it was so that we would properly enjoy the guard of honour made by two rows of young dancers from the Australian Ballet School, the girls dressed in simple white tutus and the boys in black tights and white shirts. They were lined up on each side of the auditorium stretching pretty much from the last row of the stalls down to the stage. On the stage a giant screen had been lowered and we saw an image of a smiling Maggie, full of the joy of life. And standing in the middle of a row close to the front was Maggie’s husband, Professor Derek Denton, watching as we entered.

Following an introduction from Steven Heathcote and an opening tribute from Maggie’s younger son, Angus Denton, reminiscences were given by several of Maggie’s former students and colleagues including Colin Peasley, David McAllister, Graeme Murphy, Marilyn Rowe and Lisa Pavane. Those who auditioned for her as young and hopeful dancers all admitted to being in awe of Maggie at first, but all continued to say how much they had grown to love and respect her.

Interspersed among the spoken tributes were three short performances. The first was Embrace, created by Paulina Quinteros, which was accompanied on the printed program by the phrase ‘For Dick, Matthew and Angus’, to which was added the words ‘Lucky are those who have experienced the sweetness of loving’. It was danced by Chloe Reynolds and Daniel Savetta (with Steven Heathcote playing a small role). Embrace was followed by the Act II pas de deux from Nutcracker. The Story of Clara, danced by Benedicte Bemet and Jarryd Madden. Level 8 students of the Australian Ballet School gave the third performance, a movement from Stephen Baynes’ Ballo Barocco.

But the most moving moments were left till last when a series of images of Maggie, covering the gamut of her life and career, were flashed across the screen.

The end seemed to have been reached when Jim McFarlane’s iconic image from Nutcracker (above left) appeared and all went dark. But no, Earl Carter’s equally iconic Nutcracker image appeared of Maggie rejoicing in the pleasures she experienced in Act I of Nutcracker (above right). Then, from each side of the stage a procession of students, former dancers and others entered and, in single file, moved to the centre of the stage where each placed a single white rose on the floor in front of Maggie’s image before making a slow exit. A beautiful tribute to an exceptional woman.

A State Memorial for Dame Margaret will be held on 22 March at the National Gallery of Victoria International commencing at 10:00 am. My obituary for her is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 March 2019

Featured image: Maggie Scott in Gala Performance (detail with text added). From the Ballet Rambert souvenir program for its 1947–1949 Australian tour

From 1993 …

I was moved reading Jennifer Shennan’s recent review from Auckland’s Tempo Festival, in which she discussed Douglas Wright’s latest work, M_Nod, and in which she also referred to Wright’s current health issues. My mind went racing back to 1993—it was the year that Wright’s Gloria was first performed in Sydney as part of a Sydney Dance Company season. Those were the days before things were available online and I hunted out the review I wrote of it for Dance Australia. I clearly remember Gloria (who could forget it?), and The Protecting Veil, the work by Graeme Murphy, with which Gloria shared the stage. I am posting the 1993 review below. Reading it now, 25 years and many, many reviews later, there are sections I would probably phrase differently now, but I have resisted changing anything. And I should add that, even though I am focusing my thoughts on Gloria on this occasion, I am in no way wanting to gloss over Murphy’s work, which was equally as thrilling and moving as Wright’s.

The review was originally published in Dance Australia in the issue of February/March 1994.

Truly thrilling
GLORIA, THE PROTECTING VEIL
Sydney Dance Company
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
November 1993

Douglas Wright’s 1990 piece Gloria and Graeme Murphy’s new The Protecting Veil opened what turned out to be a thrilling season of dance. Gloria, performed to Vivaldi’s choral piece of the same name, is Wright’s tribute to a friend who died at twenty. It is, on the one hand, a joyous piece that celebrates life with an outpouring of dance that is full of vigour and vitality.

Part of the joyous feeling that emerges in Gloria stems from the wit of its choreography and from its tongue-in-cheek irreverence towards the classical vocabulary. Here Wright’s work acknowledges a debt to Paul Taylor with whom Wright performed extensively during the 1980s. There is something very Tayloresque about those moments when a split jete, performed flat out, is followed by a jump that looks as though it will be another of the same but instead turns into a delicious movement in which the dancer appears to be running very fast in mid-air. Or in those other moments when a relatively well known step is followed unexpectedly by a hand- or head-stand.

But in addition to its joyous appearance, Gloria also grieves for a particular life cut off in its prime. This dual theme of joy and sorrow is addressed in movement sequences such as the juxtaposition, early in the piece, of a funereal kind of procession of dancers walking in a square formation with another group dancing in circles in and out of and around the sombre square.

A kind of fragmentation also surfaces in the way that the dance connects, or doesn’t connect with the music. Often a particular choreographic sequence will continue during a pause between sections in the music. Often, too, the audience is faced with a darkened stage, devoid of bodies but filled with music.

In the end, however, Gloria is in praise of life. Its constant use of the circle, both as a choreographic theme and in its lighting design by John Rayment, stresses continuity and its final image of rebirth ensures that we come away with a message that is life-affirming.

The Protecting Veil, like Gloria, takes its name from the music that accompanies it, in this case John Taverner’s composition for solo cello and strings inspired by ancient Byzantine church music. Murphy has produced a strong work that is theatrical without being excessively so, and that consolidates his position as a choreographer whose originality constantly astonishes the viewer.

In a structure that recalls last year’s Synergy with Synergy, with its constructions and transitions, The Protecting Veil consists of eight movements separated by what are called in the program “crossings”. In the eight movements, duets, trios and quartets alternate with dances for the whole company. A quartet for Lea Francis, Alfred Taahi, Wakako Asano, and Xue-Jun Wang is memorable for the way in which it combines four individualistic bodies and four equally individualistic ways of moving.

The power of the piece, however, is in the crossings. Here Murphy builds up a tension that aligns itself with the mesmeric aspects of Taverner’s score. All the crossings feature Janet Vernon. They are initially brief, tantalising appearances. But they gradually build in length and complexity, culminating in a duet in which Vernon is, in the beginning, partnered by Carl Plaisted through the veil of a scrim cloth. The shrouded movement that results is intrinsically interesting for its novelty, but it also makes the second section of the duet, performed without the protection of the veil, seem crystalline.

The Protecting Veil also relies for its impact on Murphy’s design concept. In addition to the use of scrims to reveal and conceal, the forest of small lights attached to long wires that are alternately lowered and raised during the piece, and the use of a slit backcloth through which bodies, and seemingly dismembered parts of them, appear and disappear are all part of a play with perception that has frequently characterised Murphy’s work. In The Protecting Veil this approach helps produce a piece that exudes the tension and suspense of a religious ritual.

Sydney Dance is looking great. And that’s not surprising considering the challenges presented to the company by Murphy himself and the choreographers he supports.

Michelle Potter, 12 October 2018

Featured image: The portrait of Douglas Wright contained in the header to this post is by John Savage.

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Globalisation or culturalism. Is ballet at the crossroads?

In December 2002 I wrote an article, at the request of Bruce Marriott, for ballet.co magazine (now no longer available) to coincide, if I remember correctly, with a conference of artistic directors held in the United Kingdom somewhere (perhaps London?). I think the commission came because David McAllister, then quite new in the role of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, was attending. As with many of my other articles and reviews for ballet.co, I thought it had disappeared from my computer files and I had not made a print out. But just recently it appeared when I was searching with the term ‘Nutcracker’ for another thought-to-be lost file. So I am posting it here and welcome comments from a 2018 perspective.

As artistic directors of some of the world’s best-known ballet companies meet to discuss the issue of globalisation, I am reminded of a now well-known debate that emerged in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s. It concerned the nature of the country’s cultural development. Two camps sprang up: one centred on the idea of the tyranny of distance, the other on the notion that from the deserts the prophets come. Those who spoke for the tyranny of distance believed that Australia was a cultural desert isolated from the great centres of civilisation, especially from the so-called mother country of Great Britain. Those on the other side believed that Australians did not need to rely on their colonists for what they required to nourish their souls—in the midst of their isolation they could have their own uniquely beautiful culture that could define them, equally uniquely, as Australian. This group took as a catch cry some lines from a poem written by renowned Australian poet A. D. Hope in 1960:

Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste.

The debate is historically interesting, and the discussion generated two of the best-known period books on Australian culture and identity: Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance and Geoffrey Serle’s From the Deserts the Prophets Come (later, in an attempt to popularise, or globalise perhaps, the Serle book was renamed The Creative Spirit in Australia).

Advances in technology of various kinds have, of course, made the idea of the tyranny of distance pretty much an obsolete concept. Globalisation, however, is clearly with us: it is  part of the fabric of our contemporary existence. It has permeated every aspect of the way we live and operate in the twenty-first century. And while many of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere may still think of Australia as out of scope, few Australians (thankfully) now believe that distance hampers their ability to interact with the rest of the world. So where does this leave the individualism that we rightly prize so highly? What do we do with the savage and scarlet that has so flamboyantly grown? Or even with the green hills if we are on the other side of the world? Do we sit back and allow globalisation to turn what is unique about our individual dance cultures into something bland and universal? Or do we embrace culturalism, accepting that, while communications may have changed the way we operate in the world, our individual cultures cannot develop in a similar way? Do we sit in our theatres from London to Sydney, from New York to Melbourne, all seeing the same works: a Giselle respectfully produced, Manon, a couple of items from Balanchine, The Merry Widow and so on.  Or do we each go for something culturally specific (a Murphy Nutcracker, an Ashton work from the early repertoire), and for individualistic reworkings of the tried and true (a Guillem Giselle, a Murphy Swan Lake)? Is one way the only way? The right way? The wrong way?

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Neither bowing to globalisation nor strictly adhering to culturalism is the answer. Culturalism smacks of attitudes of superiority and cultural elitism—my culture is better than yours. It closes the mind to innovation and change. It indulges in smugness and name calling (the vile expression ‘Eurotrash’, beloved by one particular British critic, springs immediately to mind). It is a stultifying attitude. On the other hand, globalisation removes what we value about ourselves as individuals in unique cultures, what our specific histories have created and asked us to cherish. But defiantly, ballet is perfectly able to accommodate itself within a global society without losing anything. Ballet isn’t dying. It isn’t even at the crossroads as it encounters globalisation. Ballet is like a sponge. It can soak up change: it has been doing so for centuries. It can absorb new vocabulary. It can keep renewing itself from what it absorbs. It has to be able to operate in this way because it is a living, breathing art form. Even the most superficial glance at photographs of acclaimed dancers in the same role taken over several decades, in Giselle for example, makes it very clear that while we may want Giselle to stay the same—the past is very comforting—it can’t and hasn’t and won’t. In fifty years time dancers won’t want to dance Giselle like Alina Cojocaru (hard as that idea may be to comprehend at the moment).

In the twenty-first century the ballet-going public is entitled to green hills sprinkled liberally with some savage and scarlet (and I mean this more widely, more figuratively, than simply British works sprinkled with Australian ones). Dancers are, for their growth as artists, entitled to experience the work of choreographers outside their immediate, culturally-specific environment. Choreographers are entitled to wonder (and experience) how their works might look when danced by dancers trained outside the choreographer’s home country: the great ones do (and have) and are open and generous about the experience, as any dancer from the Australian Ballet who has worked with Jiří Kylián on any work from the Australian Ballet’s Kylián repertoire will tell you. Critics need to open-minded enough to embrace change and innovation while caring about the past. And artistic directors need to understand it all! The artistic director of a truly great company needs courage, intelligence and drive. Courage not to be swayed from his or her vision. Intelligence to have a vision that looks both forward and in a lateral direction and, going hand-in-hand, intelligence to understand that looking in this manner and direction is not a denial of the past. Drive to put the vision into practice.

Globalisation is a much-maligned concept. It doesn’t have to exclude anything really. But to react to globalisation uncritically, and to allow it to dictate to us is the problem. To do this is to lack courage, intelligence and drive. That we can see new works and restagings of old ones from London to Sydney, New York to Melbourne is a gift of globalisation. If we wish to deny that gift by insisting on culturalism it is a measure of an inability to exist in a global culture, in today’s culture, and a pitifully conservative attitude. But one thing is certain, whatever the response of individual people ballet will keep moving forward. It will never fall victim to a narrow culturalism. Only people will do that. Let’s hope that the new breed of artistic directors understands.

Michelle Potter, December 2002, reposted 14 June 2018

Featured image: Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Murphy. The Australian Ballet … second viewing

14 April 2018 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I had the pleasure of seeing Murphy for a second time, this time in Sydney at a mid-season matinee and in a top-notch seat (as a result of many years of subscribing and slowly moving forward into a great position).

Much, if not all, that I wrote after the Melbourne opening still stands. One or two performers, however, stood out for me on this second occasion. In Grand,  ‘Alligator Crawl’ by Fats Waller was wonderfully danced by George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu. Xu in particular made the most of the opportunity and looked smart and sassy, as was appropriate in the jazz situation that the music demanded. Then, Yuumi Yamada and Andrew Killian danced beautifully in the duet to the Beethoven ‘Lento e mesto’ from his Piano Sonata in D major. There was a certain vulnerability in the way Yamada moved and yet technically her dancing was strong. Killian was a perfect partner in this situation.

I also omitted to mention the work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet in my previous post. His Reflections, the opening  filmed monologue from Murphy, and his introduction to Grand, which showed the incredible Wakako Asano from the Sydney Dance Company production of 2005, were fine examples of Charluet’s work and nostalgic reminders of how exceptional Sydney Dance Company was under Murphy and Vernon.

Shéhérazade, however, remained a disappointment without its silk tent. It might be one thing to perform an excerpt without the full set, which if I recall correctly was the case in Body of Work (2002) when just the opening pas de deux was performed. But the Murphy program presented the full work and it truly lost its mysterious and erotic quality without the original set.

Here is part of what Kristian Fredrikson wrote about the set: ‘Blue silk tent with applied gold patterns, a silk sling, a rope, 4 watchers on illuminated perspex—glittering gauze.’ And here is his description of one highlight where the silk plays a significant role in the choreography: ‘A girl arises from her silk trapeze and dances a yearning solo … at two points of the solo the girl is mirror-imaged by the first girl who slips in and out of the gauze.’ It would have been respectful, as well as giving audiences a true picture of what Shéhérazade was really like, had there been some effort to reproduce the original set.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2018

Featured image: Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in 'Shéhérazade'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: The National Library of Australia holds some colour photographs from the first performances (1979) of Shéhérazade taken by Don McMurdo, which show the blue tent with its gold designs. I have made concerted and repeated efforts to get permission to use them but I have had no response from the copyright owner. The National Library holds them in trust only and Don McMurdo’s permission is not sufficient. I still hold out hope that one day the Sydney Opera House’s legal team will respond.

UPDATE June 2020: It turns out that the National Library’s images are not from 1979 but from a revival in 1987. I have Janet Vernon and Chrissa Keramidas to thank for this information. One of the images appears in my book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer (with permission from and payment to the Sydney Opera House Trust).

Artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Murphy. The Australian Ballet

16 March 2018. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

This program was a retrospective of works by Graeme Murphy and was in celebration of his long association with the Australian Ballet. The evening began with a brief film clip of Murphy talking about those moments for a choreographer, and by extension for a dancer and for the audience, when a transformation occurs, when a choreographer is able to draw out from a dancer a quality that is artistry at the highest level. The brief interview (a monologue really) was a deeply personal reflection from Murphy and showed his humanity, his humility, his own artistry, and his respect for dance and those who engage with it.

The program that followed was a fine opportunity to ponder on what is distinctive about Murphy’s choreography. It consisted of excerpts from several of Murphy’s works, largely made originally for Sydney Dance Company, and a performance of Murphy’s Firebird, made for the Australian Ballet in 2009. Although Firebird has never been a favourite of mine—somehow it reminds me of a weird cult activity—it was distinguished on this occasion by an exceptional performance from Lana Jones in the title role. Her immersion in the role was complete and her first entrance was stunningly controlled, and believe me the choreographic requirements of that entrance are demanding.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in ‘Firebird.’ The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby
Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Firebird. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

But what emerged as the evening progressed was the diversity of Murphy’s output. His works have humour, but are also often clearly serious in emotional impact; they occasionally cross cultural boundaries; they are always closely connected to music, and his musical choices are themselves diverse; they can be classical in their dance vocabulary, or not so classical as the work demands; they are sometimes narrative-based, at other times quite abstract. Never a dull moment!

What was also fascinating was being able to see some of Murphy’s signature choreographic phrases and groupings across the course of the evening. What stood out for me was the way he uses small groups of dancers, often four, and has them work together as one. Bodies are thrown, swirled, turned upside down, but always engage in a smooth and lyrical manner.

In terms of the works presented, the highlight for me was Grand, the work he made in 2005 in honour of his mother, a pianist. A grand piano onstage was played by Scott Davie (as it was in 2005) and we were treated to several excerpts from this wonderful, funny, emotional work that was strongly musically oriented in so many ways—’sweeping in conception, intimate in detail and constantly surprising in choreographic invention’ I wrote in 2005. It made me long to see the full work again, but it was a treat to see as many sections as we did. They included the delightfully funny Chopsticks section and the Gershwin number, one of those remarkable uses of four dancers who seem to dance as one whatever impossible moves they are asked to make.

Valerie Tereshchenko and artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby
Valerie Tereshchenko and artists of the Australian Ballet in Grand, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The big disappointment of the evening was Shéhérazade, that exquisite short work for two men and two women made by Murphy in 1979. It was performed without the luscious, blue silk tent/canopy with its gold decorative elements, which was such an intrinsic part of Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the work. Without it most of the mysterious and erotic quality of earlier performances was lost, as was the allusion to the art of Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, and the over-ridingly blue and gold colour scheme that Fredrikson imagined (and achieved). Those hanging strips of what looked like tinsel at times were quite out of place. Just before the work’s opening in 1979 Murphy told a journalist: ‘One of the fascinating aspects of this work will be the design inserted into the dancing. In a sense the dancers will be wearing the set.’ Not this time!

Having said that, however, the standout performance of the entire evening came from Lana Jones as the second of the female dancers in Shéhérazade. Jones’ technique was impeccable. But it was her beautiful attention to choreographic detail that grabbed my attention. Those moments when she moved her wrists in little twisting circles, while holding her hands and arms close to her slightly curved body were breathtaking, as was the way she moved her neck and chest at times. And how spectacular she looked in those iconic poses for all four dancers, which mark certain stages of the work.

The evening belonged to Graeme Murphy and I salute him for all those works that have thrilled us over the years. But bouquets to Lana Jones for two standout performances during the evening. She had it all, and I thought she was dancing not just choreography but Murphy’s choreography.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2018

Featured image: artists of the Australian Ballet in Grand, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby
Amy Harris and Adam Bull in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridle

Dance diary. September 2017

  • The Australian Ballet in 2018

Details of the Australian Ballet’s 2018 season were revealed in September and this year Canberra audiences can anticipate a program from the national company. The Merry Widow, which David McAllister has called ‘a fantastically well-constructed soufflé’, was created for the Australian Ballet in 1975 as the first full-length production commissioned by the company. It will open at the Canberra Theatre Centre on 25 May and run until 30 May. Based on the operetta of the same name, it has choreography by Ronald Hynd, a scenario by Robert Helpmann (in 1975 artistic director of the Australian Ballet), and music by Franz Lehar. It will also have seasons in Sydney and Melbourne.

But beyond soufflés, and for those who like their ballet to have more intellectual input, an interesting program is scheduled for Melbourne and Sydney. Called Murphy, it honours the contribution Graeme Murphy has made to the Australian Ballet, which he joined from the Australian Ballet School in 1968. Programming is not yet complete, apparently, but we know that the main item on the program will be the return of Murphy’s Firebird, which he created for the Australian Ballet in 2009.

Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy's 'Firebird'. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Alex Makeyev
Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Alex Makeyev

Here is a quote from Murphy from a story I wrote for The Weekend Australian in February 2009:

I want to give the audience the magic that they believe Firebird is. It will be a rich and opulent experience for them. Besides, the score is completely dictative of the narrative, which makes it hard to stray from the story. Firebird is imbued with Diaghilev’s thumbprint.
I am keeping all the elements of the work, the symbols of good and evil for example, but I will be focusing in a slightly different way. It will be a little like the world of winter opening up to let in the spring.

As for the rest of the season: Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle will return for a season in Melbourne, while Sydney will have a return season of Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful Cinderella; there is a new production of Spartacus in the pipeline, which will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney; Melbourne will have an exclusive season of a triple bill called Verve with works by Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour and Alice Topp; and Adelaide will see The Sleeping Beauty.

  • Jennifer Irwin. Frocks, Tales and Tea

Jennifer Irwin, costume designer par excellence and recipient of the 2017 Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance, will be the special guest at an event hosted by ‘UsefulBox’ on 14 October at the Boronia tea rooms in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. Irwin will talk about her creative process and what inspired her as an artist. Further information at this link.

  • Andrée Grau (1954–2017)

The death has occurred, unexpectedly in France, of Andrée Grau, well-known dance anthropologist, and long-standing staff member of the University of Roehampton. Grau’s achievements, which include work in Australia, appear on the Roehampton website at this link.

  • Press for September 2017

‘Great flair shown in austere setting.’ Review of Circa’s Landscape with monsters. The Canberra Times, 8 September 2017, p. 31. Online version.

Seppe Van Looveren and Timothy Fyffe in 'Landscape With Monsters', 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey
Seppe Van Looveren and Timothy Fyffe in Landscape With Monsters, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

‘Untangling the truth.’ Preview of Gudirr, Gudirr, Dalisa Pigram and Marrugeku. The Canberra Times, 16 September 2017, Panorama p. 16. Online version.

Dalisa Pigram in 'Gudirr, Gudirr'. Photo Simon Schluter
Dalisa Pigram in Gudirr, Gudirr. Photo: © Simon Schluter

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2017

Featured image: Amy Harris and Adam Bull in The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridler.

Amy Harris and Adam Bull in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridle

More thoughts on Nutcracker: The Story of Clara

I have to admit to disliking intensely the dumbing down of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The story of Clara with the ridiculous description of it as ‘The Gum-Nutcracker.’ The work might have strong Australian resonances, but it is much more than a story about early developments in Australian ballet. The so-called ‘affectionate dubbing’ of it with reference to the fruit of the eucalyptus tree makes the work sound pathetic. Below are a few published comments that suggest that we should grow up and resist the temptation to trivialise.

Speaking of the slight nature of, and problematic issues surrounding the more traditional productions of Nutcracker (going right back to 1892), Professor Rodney Stenning Edgecombe writes:

‘When foundations are sandy, it’s better to re-lay them in concrete. And that is indeed what the brilliant Graeme Murphy has done in his version of the ballet, which, having subtitled The Story of Clara, he conceives it, as Bournonville did his ballets, as ‘frames around the biographical and travel pictures which constitute [an] actual theatre life’.

He then proceeds to analyse the ballet, its story, its choreography, its music, and its place within the history of ballet (not necessarily Australian ballet), in the most erudite terms, making reference to, and using quotations from some of the great names of world scholarship—August Bournonville, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Marcel Proust, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Patrick White, and others. Speaking about the Snowflakes scene, for example, he writes:

‘The snowflakes’ wild pirouettes with upflung arms … show how inventively Murphy can work within restrictive confines of the danse d’école. Indeed one can’t help thinking that the writing for this ensemble is deliberately transitional, Petipa Duncanised as it were. And because ‘Petipa Duncanised’ is all but a synonym for ‘Fokine’—at least the Fokine of Les Sylphides—this episode illustrates the transformation that the very art of ballet witnessed during Clara’s childhood.’

What thrills me is that Edgecombe treats the work as an artistic creation of the highest order, one that deserves to be interpreted within the widest cultural context, not as some Snugglepot and Cuddlepie story (with apologies to May Gibbs). In his final paragraph, after discussing some issues he has with Marius Petipa’s work, and a similar issue he sees relating to the way Murphy has used a section of the music, Edgecombe says:

‘And what one allows to Petipa, one must allow to Murphy, a choreographer, in my opinion, of entirely comparable genius.’1

Dame Margaret Scott, Vicki Attard and David McAllister in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet 1994. Photographer not identified
Dame Margaret Scott, Vicki Attard and David McAllister in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet 1994. Photographer not identified

I am aware that not everyone will relate to the way Edgecombe writes and analyses but, like Edgecombe, Dame Margaret Scott, who danced Clara the Elder in 1992, 1994 and 2000, also speaks of the slight nature of traditional productions and recognises the extent to which Murphy’s ballet recontextualises the traditional work into something with more narrative and choreographic depth. In an interview in 2000, in which she replies to a question about why some found the Murphy production hard to accept, Dame Margaret says:

‘In the crits in the 1892 production, there was one critic who said, ‘It’s a pity that [such] fine music is expended on nonsense unworthy of attention.’ And in the 1992 production here, one of the crits said: ‘One of the great achievements of this production is that Tchaikovsky’s music sounds as if it was written to a brief from Murphy.

And then it goes on about the ballet itself. In 1892 the crit said, ‘Ballet is sliding downhill having lost its footing and moving away towards some kind of fragile and sugary Nutcracker.’ And then in Australia, ‘With Nutcracker the Australian Ballet came of age.’ I juxtaposed those two because it is relevant to the production.

I think if it had been called from the beginning, The Story of Clara, they would have accepted it. But it’s difficult to change the traditionalists. They still want the tutu ballet. And I mean, people don’t realise that the history of Nutcracker itself is a very chequered one. It only came into this popularity when the pantomimes died and it took the place of pantomimes because of its Christmas story. It became the cash cow, the Christmas entertainment. So to say it is popular because of a great love [is wrong] because a lot of people find it very dissatisfying.’2

It is common knowledge that Murphy was at first hesitant to accept the commission from Maina Gielgud to create a new Nutcracker. In an interview in 1996 he says:

‘Maina Gielgud had asked me years ago to think about doing a Nutcracker and I’d rejected the idea on the basis that the story was silly, the piece was clichéd, and I’d never really seen one I liked.’

But, thankfully, he eventually did accept the commission. He explains:

‘The clinch for me was the music, which I adore. So Kristian [Fredrikson] came over and we played the tape and I think somewhere in the course of that listening I was going ‘I can’t do a Nutcracker set in a postcard snowland, white Christmases and all that stuff. It doesn’t really mean anything. Maybe if you could do a Nutcracker set in arid Melbourne suburbia …’ And that was really the beginning of it.’3

What we have with Murphy’s visionary production should be regarded, especially by those who write media notes, as a ballet of international reach. Save gumnuts for other less sophisticated things. But if some see a need to dumb down the work with a crazy name (in order to attract more people and bring in more money?) then perhaps they should rename the Australian Ballet the Ocker Ballet?

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2017

References

  1. All quotes from Professor Edgecombe are from Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, ‘Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker.’ Brolga, 17 (December 2002), pp. 23–32.
  2. Lee Christofis, ‘Coming of age. Retrieving history with Dame Margaret Scott and Valrene Tweedie OAM.’ Brolga, 13 (December 2000), pp. 44–58.
  3. All quotes from Murphy are from ‘Graeme Murphy. Humanity revealed’ in Michelle Potter, A passion for dance (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1997), pp. 61–77.

See also the text of a program article I wrote for the Australian Ballet’s 2009 season of Nutcracker. The story of Clara. As a concluding remark I wrote, ‘This is a Nutcracker to be loved and cherished. Its Australian connections are heart warming and a source of pride and pleasure. But the dramatic text is universal.‘ Here is the link.

Featured image: Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Nutcracker: The story of Clara. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in 'Nutcracker. The story of Clara.' The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. The Australian Ballet (2017)

10 June 2017 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

A lot has been written over the years about Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker—how it is an Australianised version of a well-loved classic, how it looks back to momentous events in Australian dance history, and so on. I am one of those lucky people who has seen every one of the seasons of Murphy’s Nutcracker since its premiere in 1992 and now I prefer to write personal thoughts rather than explanatory notes.

Murphy’s Nutcracker never loses its magic, its beauty, its theatricality, and in fact each season shows something more, something I haven’t noticed before, something surprising and unexpected. But most of all, it continues to tell me that this is a triumph for Murphy and his collaborators.

What came across really strongly for me this time was the theatricality with which the links across generations were made. I have always loved that moment, very close to the beginning, when Clara the Child picks up the package Clara the Elder has dropped as she makes her way to her home. They look at each other intently and in a brief instant we realise that they have recognised each other in some way. The child is looking at herself as an older woman, the older woman sees herself as a child. The moment was beautifully handled by Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder and Hannah Sergi as Clara the Child.

Keramidas was, in fact, a surprise as Clara the Elder. She is still very much the dancer, with her long, slim limbs, beautifully poised head, and pure line through her whole body. She danced with scarcely a hint, in a movement sense that is, that her character was that of an ageing former ballerina. What was surprising was that her exceptional grace of movement distinguished her from her elderly friends in a way that I haven’t seen before. She was truly the ballerina rather than the soloist or corps de ballet dancer, and her collapse as she watched and remembered her career with her friends was all the more poignant.

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby
Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The story of Clara. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I have always been fascinated, too, by the very moving moment in Act II when Clara the Ballerina (danced on this occasion by Dimity Azoury) watches as her lover is killed during a revolutionary battle in Russia. As she takes in the enormity of the situation, a series of scrims lift and we see Clara the Elder in her white nightgown clutching a photograph of her lover, the lover we have just seen shot. The two Claras are one and dance together sharing their pain and loss. With Keramidas and Sergi having established such a strong bond in that fleeting early moment, the emotive power of the cross generational links, which are at the heart of this ballet, came once more to the fore (this time between Keramidas and Azoury). The impact of this scene was heightened, too, by John Drummond Montgomery’s lighting for this moment—hazy down lights against a dark background of emptiness—and perhaps also because I was sitting further back than usual and could focus on an overall picture.

This time I also noticed more clearly the choreographic beauty of the snowflake scene. As snowflakes fall gently to the ground, disintegrating on the way down, so too did Murphy have his snowflakes drop to the floor moving first through a clearly articulated bend to the supporting leg so the landing from there was like a crumbling of the movement rather than a deliberate fall. Against this were sharp, icy stabs of movement as the dancers lifted a leg into the air and, at one point, a myriad of hands and arms moving up and down recalling a flurry of snow. At least that’s how I saw it: an enchanting display of snowy qualities!

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I also admired (more so than usual) Philippe Charluet’s film collage, especially those sections relating to the Russian Revolution. It has always been a treat to see how the film collage plays across the stage to add such a masterful context to this ballet, but this time the collage seemed even more pertinent to me, reading as I am at the moment a book that delves into the early life in Russia of George Balanchine.* And indeed Murphy’s inclusion of the two peasants in the picnic excursion that Clara and her friends enjoy before the Revolution begins in earnest had the same effect. The juxtaposition of wealth and privilege and lack of means to live comfortably was made clear with this small touch.

Azoury and Jarryd Madden danced strongly in the leading roles of Clara the Ballerina and the Beloved Officer, as did Andrew Wright as the Nutcracker Prince. Azoury has all the technique ready and waiting but just needs a little more feeling of freedom to make those curving, swirling lifts of the various pas de deux look as spectacular as they are. A little more time? Oh, and thank you to the new (to me) ‘older dancers’, friends of Clara the Elder. Graeme Hudson brought a certain gravitas and was it Terese Power who kept eating those chocolates and creating such a distinctive character?

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2017

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in the Imperial Ball scene from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

* Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the lost Muse. Revolution and the making of a choreographer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

An Australasian affair …

There was one empty seat in the front row at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s inaugural Harry Haythorne choreographic awards last weekend…odd since a good view in a studio setting is always at a premium and the house was otherwise full to overflowing. Perhaps Harry was playing ‘the angel at the table’—occupying that seat to keep a keen eye on proceedings, pleased to see that his encouragement of emerging choreographers is being remembered, and that today’s young dancers who never met him can nevertheless tell what kind of initiative he brought to his term as artistic director here, 1981–1992. Let’s cheat Death awhile.

Harry Haythorne
Harry Haythorne

A small group of Harry’s colleagues and friends had met to plan these awards, the idea and koha for which grew from the spirited party held in his memory back in January, in tandem with the festive gathering in Melbourne. It’s interesting to ponder on the New Zealand and Australian inter-twinings in our company over decades. Harry for starters, himself Australian through and through, yet we think of him as a New Zealander emeritus. Australian Mark Keyworth as company manager, navigated with him.

Promising young choreographer Loughlan Prior won both the panel’s and the people’s award, with the striking imagery of his work, Eve, set to song and spoken poetry. Loughlan was born in Melbourne though did later training in New Zealand.

On present membership, over one third of the RNZB dancers are from Australia, and/or trained there, so more threads are in the weave. Cast a thought back to the middle decades of the 20th century, when the Borovansky Ballet’s regular tours were so welcome here. It was their 1952 tour that brought dancer Poul Gnatt, who looked around, hunched that New Zealand might like a ballet company, returned to found one the following year—and the rest is history.

Peggy van Praagh was involved in staging several productions for New Zealand Ballet in early years here, not least Tudor’s Judgment of Paris. She and Russell Kerr arranged for dancer exchanges between Australian and New Zealand companies, and also masterminded two landmark fortnight-long residential courses of dance appreciation at University of Armidale in NSW. Both schemes should have continued ever since. I still treasure my notebooks from things we saw and heard there in 1967 and 1969—from van Praagh, Algeranoff, Beth Dean, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch, Karl Welander, Keith Bain, Eric Westbrook—films of Martha Graham and of Jose Limon—good things that last, seeding an awareness of dance for a lifetime.

Many here have wished that we might have seen more of Graeme Murphy’s choreography in New Zealand over the years. There was his searingly memorable Orpheus, commissioned by Harry for the Stravinsky Celebration season in 1982. Sydney Dance Company brought the greatly admired Some Rooms to the first Arts Festival here, and Shining followed soon after that. Then Matz Skoog in 1997 brought Murphy’s quietly powerful The Protecting Veil, a work that suited our company particularly well…but we could have done and seen so much more of his remarkable oeuvre. Harry brought Jonathan Taylor’s impressive Hamlet, and ‘Tis Goodly Sport—suiting our company so well. Kristian Fredrikson, local boy made good, began his training here in Wellington, and continued to design and dress so many memorable productions on both sides of the Tasman, adding to the ties that bind. RNZB have also toured a number of seasons in Australia over the years.

But with the brand new ballet from Liam Scarlett, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pioneering as a co-production with Queensland Ballet, there’s an inspired possibility of further exchanges within the choreographic repertoire, with rich benefits for those two companies and their audiences on both sides of the Tasman. Directors Li Cunxin in Queensland and Francesco Ventriglia in Wellington will no doubt be already thinking ahead. They could be onto a winner here. I’m just going to see one more performance of this scintillating faerie ballet shortly, and will then write about it. It’s quite on the cards that many who were so enchanted by the premiere season here will want to travel to Queensland next year to catch it on the rebound. Nothing wrong with falling in love again. I’m sure Harry would agree.

 Jennifer Shennan, 15 September 2015

Featured image: Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photographer not known