Russell Kerr Lecture, 2024

The paper below was meant to be given as a talk as part of the 2024 Russell Kerr Lecture series, which took place in Wellington on 25 February 2024. I had a misadventure with the plane that took me to Wellington (which ended up in Auckland) and in the end did not get to Wellington to deliver the talk in person. Here is a slightly altered version of what I planned to say.

Unlike many of you here I was not a close friend of, or fellow performer with Jon Trimmer. My connection came as a result of a book I was researching about designer Kristian Fredrikson, who was a New Zealander by birth and who designed a number of works for Royal New Zealand Ballet and other New Zealand-based companies. Kristian, of course, came into contact with Jonty over and over. I first met Jonty in 2018 and spent a remarkable hour or so drinking coffee and listening to his recollections of Kristian. (And I should add here that I am calling him Jonty because he said I could when we met.)

My talk today will focus on a few of the productions that Kristian designed and in which Jonty appeared. Given the short amount of time I have, it will only be a few I’m afraid. First up is Peter Pan, a work choreographed by none other than Russell Kerr. It premiered in 1999 and Jonty had the role of Captain Hook. The image below is a special study made by Kristian for Marjorie Head. Marjorie was an admired Australian milliner and worked closely with Kristian for many, many years. He made a number of special designs for her as gifts for various occasions and six of them are now in the collection of the National Library in Canberra. What you see is one of them.

Below are two action shots from a performance of Peter Pan. Jonty loved this role and during our conversation said the words you see on the left hand side of the image, ‘I adored it. I had lovely shoes with nice heels and big bows at the front. It was cabaret style stuff. If I could still do it I’d love to be in it again.’ (Jon Trimmer, 2018)

But what is clear in these two photographs is how strongly he entered into a role. You can see it in his body, whether he is leaning forward or throwing his arms upwards. Each expresses a different emotion through his body and, of course, in his facial expression.

Below are two more performance shots from Peter Pan and the same may be said of them. The slightly concerned look on his face on the left-hand image contrasts with the pirately involvement we see in the right-hand image. Oh, those eyes! And that mouth! You can read what Jonty said of his costume on the slide or here, ‘My Captain Hook jacket was so heavy. I had a lot of running around to do and after the first tour Kristian put together a lighter jacket. It looked the same but was just made out of lighter fabric.’ (Jon Trimmer, 2018)

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I’m moving on now to A Servant of Two Masters, a ballet choreographed by Gray Veredon based on a play of the same name by 18th century Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni.

Jonty, whom you see on the right of the image, played the rich merchant Pantalone. This particular slide shows something of the set design and I found researching the set design quite interesting. No time here to go into it, other than to present what Cathy Goss, who danced in various roles in the show, had to say, ‘I remember the silks and I think we all had a love/hate relationship with them! There were quite complex sequences to get right each night and a fair bit of sitting holding them as they basically created the set at times.’ (Catherine Goss, 2018)

And above we see Jonty with Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi engaging in a somewhat dramatic moment. And notice the rather taken aback look on Jonty’s face and his curved body as he attempts to manage the somewhat dominant Lombardi. You can read what Jonty says about the costume in the text on the screen, and here, ‘I had long-johns on, bright red, quite tight, and a lovely jacket in multi colours. Harry had black long-johns, slightly baggier, and a long red and white striped scarf.’  (Jon Trimmer, 2018).

And just as an aside, I found on Wikipedia the small image at the corner of the slide. The image is from Frenchman Maurice Sand and shows Pantalone as he appeared as an Italian commedia dell arte figure. So, the red that Jonty talks about is clearly looking back to the original Pantalone.

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So, I’m moving on now to Tell me a Tale, Gray Veredon’s work of 1989 in which Jonty played the Teller of Tales.

I was fascinated when I discovered the design you see on the screen – a very Australian coat, a Driza-Bone to give it its name, and Jonty refers the Teller of Tales as ‘A really outback character.’ I’m not sure if outback is also a New Zealand expression but it is very Australian referring to the land beyond the cities and the regional town areas. But if I had looked closely at the design, I would have perhaps noticed that there was a decorative element on the hat. Andrew Pfeiffer mentioned it in a talk I had with him in 2012. He said, ‘Jon was dressed in a Driza-Bone with a bit of silver fern wrapped through his hat and that emblem printed all over the top of his Driza-Bone.’ (Andrew Pfeiffer, 2012)

Andrew also summarised the story in a few words saying, ‘It was basically a storyteller telling a young boy the story of New Zealand in terms of the relationships between the Māori people and the colonists. Jonty was often just standing there with a young boy sitting at his feet. He was miming to the boy throughout the ballet with the ballet taking place on the side.’ (Andrew Pfeiffer, 2012)

And Gray tells the story of how it came to be called Tell Me a Tale.

I should add though that Gray starts by saying ‘Living there … ‘.  ‘There’ refers to Katikati where he grew up.

Andrew Pfeiffer also helped me with something else, although I didn’t realise it until I was preparing this talk and I went back to the recording I had of our conversation in 2012. During my research I found a design in the National Library that was not identified. You can see it on the right of the screen. It was located in a box close to the costume designs for Tell Me a Tale and I wondered if it was a set design. In our interview, Andrew mentioned that Jonty was standing in front of some sails. So, with apologies to the photographer, I made some alterations to the image on the slide above – exposure, colour etc – and there they were, the sails. They are hard to see with the image transferred to this website but you can just make them out on the image below in the top right-hand corner.

But going back after that slight diversion, I think the main image on this slide shows Jonty again using all his body as he leans back and looks ahead at what will unfold. Elsewhere in the interview I did with Gray he says. ‘I wanted to look back to where I came from’ and I think we can definitely see that in Jonty’s posture and expression. And we can see a similar sense of seeking and searching in Kim Broad as the young boy. 

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Going on now to Russell Kerr’s Swan Lake. I haven’t added a date to the heading for this slide as the work has been revived on a number of occasions. The premiere occurred in 1996 but the image I have of Jonty, as Wolfgang the tutor to Siegfried, comes from a performance in 2005. In the centre of the slide is Kristian Fredrikson’s design for Wolfgang’s costume.

And below is the full image from which the figure of Jonty in the slide above has been extracted. You can’t help but be taken aback somewhat by the magnificence of the costume for the Princess Mother of course but I love this photo of Jonty because he is the tutor, she is the Princess Mother and, while he is dressed to kill, I think you can see in his downcast eyes, his carefully folded arms and hands and his very erect posture that he knows his place in the scheme of things, and in the society in which ballet takes place.

That is all I have time for so I am back now with the first image I showed. What I set out to suggest in this talk is that Jonty did open the door for us and he kept us there with the way he performed. It was not just through his technique but also through his being able to enter into the characters he was taking on in other ways as well, through his physicality and his understanding that characterisation is enhanced by every aspect of movement.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2024

Dance diary. February 2024

  • Russell Kerr Lecture 2024

The annual Russell Kerr Lecture for 2024 took place in Wellington on Sunday 25 February. The lecture honoured Sir Jon Trimmer, esteemed artist who made a huge contribution to ballet in New Zealand, and who died last year. I was to give a short talk in which I planned, by focusing on images including some costume designs, to show how Jonty, as he was familiarly known, was able to inhabit a role so magnificently. Unfortunately there was an issue with the plane that was taking me to Wellington from Sydney late on Saturday. The issue was not so much the plane itself but the weather in Wellington as we attempted to land. We were in fact diverted to Auckland (at around midnight) and a situation developed where we were told to wait in the transit lounge until the plane could take off to Wellington (the next morning). Well, without going into the highly unpleasant details, I ended up flying back to Sydney on the Sunday thus missing the lecture!

One of the most interesting parts of the proposed talk, at least for me, concerned a work called Tell Me a Tale choreographed by Gray Veredon in 1988 in which Jonty played the role of the Teller of Tales. In an interview I did with Jonty in 2018 he told me he was ‘a really “outback” character’ in the work. In a earlier interview (2012) with Royal New Zealand Ballet’s former wardrobe manager, Andrew Pfeiffer, I heard that ‘Jon was dressed in a Driza-Bone with a bit of silver fern wrapped through his hat and that emblem printed all over the top of his Driza-Bone.’ Below is Kristian Fredrikson’s design for the Teller of Tales alongside a photo of Jonty dressed in that outfit.

Andrew Pfeiffer also gave a very succinct outline of the story saying, ‘It was basically a storyteller telling a young boy the story of New Zealand in terms of the relationships between the Māori people and the colonists. Jonty was often just standing there with a young boy sitting at his feet. He was miming to the boy throughout the ballet with the ballet taking place on the side.’

And another aspect of that part of my talk was Veredon’s discussion of how the work came to be called Tell Me a Tale. Here is the audio link:

I was really disappointed not to have been able to give the talk and may work out later how to add the PPT to this site.

  • Hannah O’Neill

It is always good to hear about Hannah O’Neill’s ongoing success with Paris Opera Ballet. Here is a link to the latest news.

  • Lifeline Book Fair Canberra

The Lifeline Book Fair is a regular event in Canberra and has been for many years now. The most recent fair was in February 2024 and I ended up with seven dance-related items even though I had decided I have enough dance books for the rest of my life and wasn’t intending to buy anything this time. All in all the seven items cost me $27, which will go to helping Lifeline Canberra keep its crisis telephone service operating in the local area. I am currently reading the autobiographical I, Maya Plistetskaya, perhaps the most unusually written book I have ever come across. Next on the list is The Official Bolshoi Ballet Book of Swan Lake by Yuri Grigorovich and Alexander Demidov, whose chapters include ‘The Inside Story’, ‘Concerning One Delusion’, ‘A Painful Dilemma’ and other such fascinating titles. It promises to hold many matters that will be new to me I think.

Michelle Potter, 29 February 2024

Featured image: Jon Trimmer as Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1999. Photo: © Maarten Holl

Tribute to Jon Trimmer

2 February 2024. Opera House, Wellington
by Jennifer Shennan

Sir Jon Trimmer, dancer extraordinaire and leading artist of the Royal New Zealand Ballet for decades, died in October 2023. Yesterday a Tribute to the man and artist was presented in Wellington to a capacity audience at the Opera House. Guest of Honour was Jacqui, Lady Trimmer, also a dancer with RNZB, who was at Jon’s side throughout his 60 year performance career 

The event was designed and prepared by Turid Revfeim, former dancer with Company, and more recently artistic director of her independent Ballet Collective Aotearoa.

We were reminded of the extraordinary range of Jonty’s roles in spoken tributes, photo images, film excerpts of him dancing, and live performances by current members of RNZB. Jon had danced in all the classics—(his favourite was Albrecht, and we also saw film of him as the visionary poet in Les Sylphides). In dramatic roles there were so many favourites but let’s mention Friar Lawrence and Duke of Verona in Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet; the debauched King in André Prokovsky’s Königsmark; Dr Coppélius in Russell Kerr’s Coppélia; the stunning Swan in Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana; a compelling toa/warrior in Gaylene Sciascia’s Moko; the enigmatic Man in Ashley Killar’s No Exit; and the poignant Leopold in Gray Veredon’s Wolfgang Amadeus—in a duet-minuet with the inimitable Eric Languet. In comedy roles Jon relished Stepmother in Cinderella, Pantalone in Veredon’s The Servant of Two Masters, The Matron in Gary Harris’ The Nutcracker, and goofing through the title role in Harris’ Don Quixote.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer (left) as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Martin Stewart, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. PACOLL-8050-36-04

All those memories are worth gold, but it’s apparent to anyone who thinks about it that Gray Veredon was/is New Zealand’s exceptional choreographer with a unique imagination, style and sensibility. Jon was 41 when he first danced the outrageously wonderful solo as The Entertainer in Veredon’s Ragtime Dance Company. No one on the planet ever did or could match that performing. At age 80 Veredon is still active on the international choreographic stage, with recent successes in Warsaw and Venice, and now in Mexico. How fine and fitting it would be for RNZB to re-stage some of his stellar works—perhaps Firebird and Tell Me A Tale for starters.    

In 2006 Peter Coates directed and produced a wonderful documentary of Jon’s career from which excerpts were screened. How wonderful to see and hear Russell Kerr in such good voice analysing Jon’s talents. The film will be a valuable resource for years to come. 

Tributes were received from former artistic directors of RNZB—Harry Haythorne (by proxy from Mark Keyworth), Ashley Killar, Patricia Rianne, Gary Harris, Matz Skoog, Ethan Stiefel and Francesco Ventriglia—and were read by Anne Rowse, former director of New Zealand School of Dance.

Breathing stopped when Helen Moulder started a cameo from her poignant play, Meeting Karpovsky, that she and Jon performed many times. How could she do that with half the cast missing? But suddenly there was Kim Broad who quietly appeared from the shadows in a miraculous summoning of Jon’s presence. That was the true moment of theatre in the whole event.

The next Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, the sixth in the annual series, to be held in Wellington on Sunday 25 February 2024, will be all about Jon Trimmer. Turid Revfeim is the main presenter, with a number of other contributors, and we will also screen the complete Coates’ documentary. For those readers able and interested to attend, please email jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz for an invitation.

We are already thinking ahead that 2025’s lecture will be on Gray Veredon. Perhaps the year after that might be Eric Languet?

Jennifer Shennan, 3 February 2024

Featured image: Jon Trimmer in Helen Moulder’s Meeting Karpovsky. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Reliving the past

by Jennifer Shennan

Harry Haythorne (Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet 1981—1992) was always an enthusiastic admirer of Gray Veredon’s choreography. In 1981, the effervescent Ragtime Dance Company, to Scott Joplin, had set the stage sizzling and gave Jon Trimmer one of his favourite roles. In 1988 Harry commissioned Tell Me A Tale, which wove elements of 19th century Pakeha settlers interacting with local Maori community, incorporating haka into the danced narrative. To my memory that was the most assured choreographic staging in and of a bi-cultural New Zealand we have seen.

Veredon’s rapport with designer Kristian Fredrikson was evident in the shadowed atmosphere of a powerful set and vintage costumes. Images remain of the performances by Jon Trimmer as the father, Kerry-Anne Gilberd the mother, Kim Broad the son, with Warren Douglas powerfully leading the haka that challenged a love interest across the racial divide. It’s always intriguing to think about what keeps some dance memories alive for decades while others fade.

Kerry-Anne Gilberd and Stephen McTaggart in a scene from Tell Me a Tale. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Courtesy Gray Veredon

In 1989, Haythorne commissioned A Servant of Two Masters—with Veredon and Fredrikson again working together. The request was for a set that could easily travel abroad since Veredon’s contacts with the impresario Manfred Gerber enabled the Company’s first tour to Europe. Fredrikson came up trumps with silk banners that filled the stage yet could be folded down into two suitcases. Board a plane with a ballet in your carry-on luggage? Touché. 

To vivacious Vivaldi, the full-length work proved a triumph as Veredon, who knew commedia dell’arte well, made stunning character roles for every soloist in the company, each one of whom rose to the challenge—most outstandingly Eric Languet as Truffaldino and Warren Douglas as Brighella. Even the Artistic Director was on stage as Harry leapt at the chance to play Dr. Lombardi, cavorting opposite Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone. It is true as Michelle Potter points out they did not push their luck by overplaying the farce, but reined in their comic timing which of course controls character the more impressively. Many audience veterans vote Servant as the ‘best ever’ work from RNZB repertoire. The tour proved hugely memorable for the Company for a completely different reason—they were in Berlin when the Wall came down. Dancer Turid Revfeim’s memories and descriptions of the events could and should be the subject of another full-length choreography.

In the book The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, Veredon wrote a perceptive article, Developing New Synergies, about his numerous seasons with RNZB. His tribute to Jon Trimmer as leading dancer for decades is for the record. Veredon also shares cogent and relevant ideas for choreographic development within a ballet company, and the responsibility to keep the best of the repertoire extant. Ka hau te rangatahi—the new net goes fishing.

Jennifer Shennan, 4 July 2022

Editor’s note: This article began as a comment on the review on this website of the Australian Ballet’s production of Harlequinade but deserved to become a short article on new and old repertoire. Gray Verdon’s comments on repertoire in The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, as mentioned above, are definitely worth reading especially the last paragraph on p. 166. More about A Servant of Two Masters and Tell me a Tale can be found in Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, pp. 147-156.

Featured image: Jon Trimmer as Pantalone with a group of Zanies in A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photo: © Martin Stewart (?). Courtesy Gray Veredon

Dance diary. November 2020

This month’s dance diary has an eclectic mix of news about dance from across the globe. I am beginning with a cry for help from a New Zealand initiative, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, led by Turid Revfeim, dancer, teacher, coach, mentor, director across many dance organisations. I am moved to do this as a result of two crowd funding projects I initiated when I was in a similar position and needed an injection of funds to help with the production of my recent Kristian Fredrikson book. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the arts community. It made such a difference to what my book looked like and I will forever be grateful.

  • Ballet Collective Aotearoa

Ballet Collective Aotearoa was unsuccessful in its application to Creative New Zealand for funding to take its project, Subtle Dances, to Auckland and Dunedin in early 2021. The group has secured performances at the arts festivals at those two New Zealand cities. BCA’s line-up for Subtle Dances brings together a great mix of experienced professional dancers and recent graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance. They will perform new works by Cameron McMillan, Loughlan Prior and Sarah Knox.

For my Australia readers, Prior has strong Australian connections, having been born in Melbourne and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Then, Cameron McMillan, a New Zealander by birth, trained at the Australian Ballet School and has danced with Australian Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. And, dancing in the program will be William Fitzgerald who was brought up in Canberra, attended Radford College and has been a guest dance teacher there, and studied dance in Canberra with Kim Harvey.

The campaign to raise money for Turid Revfeim’s exceptional venture is via the New Zealand organisation, Boosted. See this link to contribute. See more on the BCA website.

  • Interconnect. Liz Lea Productions

Liz Lea’s Interconnect was presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra Festival and focused on connections between India and Canberra. The idea took inspiration from the designers of the city of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, and from the fact that Walter Burley Griffin spent his last years in India where he died in Lucknow in 1937. As a result, the program featured a cross section of dance styles from Apsaras Arts Canberra, the Sadhanalaya School of Arts and several exponents of Western contemporary styles.

Promotional image for Interconnect. Photo: © Kevin Thornhill and Andrew Sikorski. Design by Andrea McCuaig

Interconnect was shown at Gorman Arts Centre in a space that was previously an art gallery. Physical distancing was observed, as we have come to expect. I enjoyed the through-line of humour that Lea is able to inject into all her works, including Interconnect. I was also taken by a short interlude called Connect in which Lea danced to live music played on electric guitar by Shane Hogan, and which featured on film in the background a line drawing of changing patterns created by Andrea McCuaig. Multiple connections there!

  • Gray Veredon

Choreographer Gray Veredon has put together a new website set out in several parts under the headings ‘The Challenge’, ‘New Ways in Set Design’, and ‘Influences and Masters’. His themes are developed using as background his recent work in Poland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Gray Veredon’s website can be viewed at this link.

  • Jean Stewart

Jean Stewart, whose dance photographs I have used many times on this website, is the subject of a short video put together by the State Library of Victoria. Jean died in 2017 and donated her archive to the SLV. Here is the link to video. And below are two of my favourite photographs from other sources. I can’t get over the costumes in the background of the Coppélia shot! Is that Act II?

Other Stewart favourites appear in the brief tribute I wrote back in 2017.

  • Jacob’s Pillow fire

Devastating and heartbreaking news came from Jacob’s Pillow during November. Its Doris Duke Theatre was burnt to the ground.

Here is a link to the report from the Pillow.

  • Nina Popova (1922-2020)

Nina Popova, Russian born dancer who danced in Australia during the third Ballets Russes tour in 1939-1940, died in Florida in August 2020. I was especially saddened to learn that her death was a result of COVID-19.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More comments and reviews

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer was ‘Highly Recommended’ on the Summer Reading Guide in its ‘Biography’ category.

Mention of it also appeared on the Australian Ballet’s site, Behind Ballet, Issue # 252 of 18 November 2020 with the following text:

KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON, DESIGNER A lavish new book by historian and curator Michelle Potter takes us inside the fascinating world of Fredrikson, whose rich and inventive designs grace so many of our productions.    MORE INFO

I was also thrilled to receive just recently a message from Amitava Sarkar, whose photographs from Stanton Welch’s Pecos and Swan Lake for Houston Ballet are a magnificent addition to the book. He wrote: ‘Congratulations.  What a worthwhile project in this area of minimal research.‘ He is absolutely right that design for the stage is an area of minimal research! Let’s hope it doesn’t always remain that way.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2020

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and William Fitzgerald in a promotional image for Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aoteaora, 2020. Photo: © Celia Walmsley, Stagebox Photography

Dance diary. September 2020

  • Gray Veredon on choreography

I am pleased to be able to post some interesting material sent to me by New Zealand-born choreographer, Gray Veredon. He has just loaded the first of a series of video clips in which he talks about his aims and ideas for his choreographic output. He uses examples from his latest work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he mounted recently in Poland. See below.

  • Alan Brissenden (1932–2020)

The dance community is mourning the death of Dr Alan Brissenden, esteemed dance writer and outstanding academic from the University of Adelaide. Alan wrote about dance for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers from the 1950s onwards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Australian Dance Awards in 2013.

As I looked back through my posts for the times I have mentioned Alan on this site, it was almost always for his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance, 1945–1965. Since it was published in 2010, it has always been my go-to book about Australian dance for the period it covers. No gossip in it; just the story of what happened—honest, critical, carefully researched and authoritative information. Very refreshing. Find my review of the book, written in 2010 for The Canberra Times, at this link.

A moving obituary by Karen van Ulzen for Dance Australia, to which Alan was a long-term contributor, is at this link.

  • Jack Riley

It was interesting to see that Marcus Wills’ painting Requiem (JR) was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Archibald Prize. While Wills states that the painting is not meant to be ‘biographical’, the (JR) of the title stands for dancer Jack Riley. Riley began his performing career as a Quantum Leaper with Canberra’s youth group, QL2 Dance. After tertiary studies he has gone on to work with a range of companies including Chunky Move, Australian Dance Party, and Tasdance.

See the tag Jack Riley for more writing about him and his work on this site.

  • Jake Silvestro

The first live performance in a theatre I have been to since March took place in September at the newly constructed black box theatre space at Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra. It was a circus-style production called L’entreprise du risque. It featured Frenchman Bernard Bru and Australian Circus Oz performer Jake Silvestro, along with two young performers who trained at Canberra’s Warehouse Circus, Imogen Drury and Clare Pengryffyn.

While the show was somewhat uneven in standard, the standout performer was Jake Silvestro, whose acts on the Cyr wheel showed incredible balance and skill in general.

But whatever the standard, it was a thrill to be back watching live theatre again.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

In Wellington, New Zealand, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer is being sold through Unity Books, which presented the publication as its spotlight feature for its September newsletter. Follow this link. It includes Sir Jon Trimmer’s heartfelt impressions of the book, which I included in the August dance diary.

An extensive review by Dr Ian Lochhead, Christchurch-based art and dance historian, appeared in September on New Zealand’s Theatreview. Apart from his comments on the book itself, Dr Lochhead took the opportunity to comment on the importance of archiving our dance history. Read the full review at this link.

Royal New Zealand Ballet also featured the book in its September e-newsletter. See this link and scroll down to READ.

Back in Australia, Judy Leech’s review appeared in the newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. Again this is an extensive review. Read it at this link.

  • Press for September

‘Capital company.’ A story on Canberra’s professional dance company, Australian Dance Party. Dance Australia, September-November 2020, pp. 31-32.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2020

Featured image: Giovanni Rafael Chavez Madrid as Oberon and Mayu Takata as Titania in Gray Veredon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

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

Mayu Takata as Titania with the Mechanicals in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Baltic Opera Ballet 2020. Photo K. Mystkowski

News from Gray Veredon

Just recently I was sent some images from a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream choreographed by Gray Veredon and performed in Gdansk, Poland, by the Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig. I recall with pleasure a visit in 2018 to La Mirande en Ardèche in the French Alps where Veredon lives. There he and I had several conversations about the work he had done with Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera for which Kristian Fredrikson had created sets and costumes. Later, I had had the opportunity to watch, on film, Veredon’s 1989 production of A Servant of Two Masters for Royal New Zealand Ballet and had been interested in the strength and unusual aspects of his choreographic approach, and in the way in which he integrated sets and costumes into the movement.

One of the remarks he made during our conversations in France was that he regarded the visual contributions to a work—sets in particular—as an integral player in the production. He said:

Scenery for me is not just there to be looked at for the next half an hour. It has to move and underline acting areas, character and musicality.

What was also striking for me about Veredon’s productions was the manner in which he transformed narratives from the ‘given’ to something decidedly thought-provoking and arresting. He said of his production of The Firebird, made for the New Zealand Ballet in 1982 (before the company had received its royal charter):

Basically, my version of Firebird was about the spirit of freedom breaking away from boundaries … the Firebird brought hope. That feeling grew and grew until it was strong enough to make freedom a possibility.

Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to see his Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was actually created, Veredon tells me, some years ago and danced by a pick-up company called Ballet de France. I found a review by a Los Angeles critic, which you can read at this link. It gives you an idea of what I have mentioned above re Veredon’s choreography and approach to storyline. Veredon also tells me that the Ballet de France experience introduced him to Eric Languet, whom Veredon then invited to New Zealand where, amongst other things, he danced Truffaldino in A Servant of Two Masters.

Here are two images from the Gdansk production. Costumes were by Zuzanna  Markiewicz, sets by Katarrzyna Zawistowska.

Maria Kielan as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski
Moon and Lion from the Mechanicals performing their play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

More about Gray Veredon and his work in New Zealand appears in my forthcoming book on Kristian Fredrikson.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2020

Featured image: Mayu Takata as Titania with the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

Mayu Takata as Titania with the Mechanicals in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Baltic Opera Ballet 2020. Photo K. Mystkowski

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]