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.
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.
This is an expanded version of an obituary written by Jennifer Shennan and published in The Dominion Post online on 2 April 2022.
Russell Kerr, leading light of ballet in New Zealand, has died in Christchurch aged 92. The legendary dancer, teacher, choreographer and producer influenced generations of New Zealand dancers. Kerr’s hallmark talent was to absorb music so as to draw out character, narrative, human interest, emotion, poetry and comedy that ballet in the theatre can offer. Thrusting your leg high in the air, or even behind your head, just because you can, is the empty gesture of perfunctory performance that he found exasperating. Shouting and sneering at dancers, telling them they are not good enough, was anathema to him. One dancer commented, ‘Mr Kerr always treated you as an artist so you behaved like one.’
Born in Auckland in 1930, the younger of two sons, Russell was already learning piano from his mother, a qualified teacher, when a doctor recommended dance classes to strengthen against the rheumatoid arthritis that ailed the child. Did that doctor follow the remarkable career that ensued from his advice? Years later Russell was asked if it was difficult, back then, to be the only boy in a ballet school of girl pupils? He chuckled, ‘Oh no, it was marvellous—there I was in a room full of girls and no competition for their attention. It was great fun.’
Kerr made impressive progress both in dancing and piano, achieving LTCL level, then starting to teach. He could have been a musician, but dancing won out when in 1951 he was awarded a Government bursary to study abroad. In London he trained at Sadler’s Wells, with Stanislaw Idzikowski (a dancer in both Pavlova’s and Diaghilev’s companies), and also Spanish dance with Elsa Brunelleschi. Upon her advice and just for the experience, he went to an audition at the leading flamenco company of José Greco. Flamenco would be one of the world’s most demanding dance forms, both technically and musically. Remarkably, he was offered the job, providing he changed his name to Rubio Caro! How fitting that Kerr’s first contract was as a dancing musician. When asked later how he’d managed it he replied, ‘Oh, I just followed the others.’
After a time, Sadler’s Wells’ leading choreographer, Frederick Ashton, declared Russell’s body not suitably shaped for ballet. ‘I’ll show you’ he muttered to himself, and so he did. In a performance of Alice in Wonderland, he scored recognition in a review (‘Kerr’s performance as a snail was so lifelike you could almost see the slimy trail he left behind as he crossed the stage.’ As he later pointed out, ‘not many dancers are complimented in review for their slimy trails’). A sense of humour and irony was always hovering.
Kerr danced with Ballet Rambert, and was encouraged towards choreography by director Marie Rambert. Later he joined Festival Ballet, rising to the rank of soloist, earning recognition for his performances in Schéhérazade, Prince Igor, Coppélia, Petrouchka among others. Nicholas Beriosov had been regisseur to choreographer Fokine in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Kerr’s work with him at Festival Ballet lent a pedigree to his later productions from that repertoire as attuned and authentic as any in the world.
The investment of his Government bursary was exponentially repaid when Russell, now married to dancer June Greenhalgh, returned to New Zealand in 1957. He told me he spent the ship’s entire journey sitting in a deck chair planning how to establish a ballet company that might in time become a national one. Upon arrival he was astonished to learn that Poul Gnatt, formerly with Royal Danish Ballet, had already formed the New Zealand Ballet and, thanks to Community Arts Service and Friends of the Ballet since 1953, ‘…they were touring to places in my country I’d never even heard of. So I ditched my plans and Poul and I found a way to work together.’
Kerr became partner and later director of Nettleton-Edwards-Kerr school of ballet in Auckland. (I was an 11 year old pupil there. It was obvious that Mr Kerr was a fine teacher, encouraging aspiration though not competition. We became friends for life). Auckland Ballet Theatre had existed for some years but Kerr built up its size and reputation, staging over 30 productions. Perhaps the highlight of these was a season of Swan Lake on a stage on Western Springs lake. He produced a series, Background to Ballet, for Television New Zealand in its first year of broadcasting, and also choreographed many productions for Frank Poore’s Light Opera Company.
In 1959, New Zealand Ballet and Auckland Ballet Theatre combined in the United Ballet Season, involving dancers June Greenhalgh, Rowena Jackson, Philip Chatfield, Sara Neil and others. The program included Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor to Borodin’s sensuous score, and Prismatic Variations, co-choreographed by Kerr and Gnatt, to Brahms’ glorious St Anthony Chorale. Music as well as dance audiences in Auckland were astonished, and the triumphant season was repeated with equal success the following year in Wellington, when Anne Rowse joined the cast.
In 1960 a trust to oversee the New Zealand Ballet’s future was formed, and by 1962 Kerr was appointed Artistic Director. His stagings of classics—Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade—were balanced with new works, including the mysterious Charade, and whimsical One in Five. Kerr used compositions by Greig, Prokofiev, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Copland for his own prolific choreographic output—Concerto, Alice in Wonderland, Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf, The Alchemist, The Stranger. In 1964 he invited New Zealander Alexander Grant who had an established reputation as a character dancer with England’s Royal Ballet, to perform the lead role in Petrouchka, a superb production that alone would have earned Kerr worldwide recognition.
A fire at the company headquarters in 1967 meant a disastrous loss of sets and costumes that only added to the colossal demands of running the company on close to a shoestring budget. Kerr’s health was in an extremely parlous state. In 1969 Gnatt returned from Australia and as interim director, with the redoubtable Beatrice Ashton as manager, kept the company on the road.
Russell had worked closely with Jon Trimmer, the country’s leading dancer, and his wife Jacqui Oswald, dancer and ballet mistress. They later joined him at the New Zealand Dance Centre he had established in Auckland, developing an interesting new repertoire. The Trimmers remember, ‘…Russell would send us out into the park, the street or the zoo, to watch people and animals, study their gait and gestures, to bring character to our roles.’ Kerr also mentored and choreographed for Limbs Dance Company. The NZDC operated until 1977, though these were impecunious and difficult years for the Kerr family. But courage and the sticking place were found, and Russell, as always, let music be his guide.
In 1978 he was appointed director at Southern Ballet Theatre, which proved lucky for Christchurch as he stayed there until 1990, later working with Sherilyn Kennedy and Carl Myers. In 1983 Harry Haythorne as NZB’s artistic director invited all previous directors to contribute to a gala season to mark the company’s 30th anniversary. Kerr’s satirical Salute, to Ibert, had Jon Trimmer cavorting as a high and heady Louis XIV.
His two lively ballets for children, based on stories by author-illustrator Gavin Bishop—Terrible Tom and Te Maia and the Sea Devil—proved highly successful, but there was a whole new chapter in Kerr’s career awaiting. After Scripting the Dreams, with composer Philip Norman, he made the full-length ballet, A Christmas Carol, a poignant staging alive with characters from Dickens’ novel, with design by Peter Lees-Jeffries. (The later production at RNZB had new design by Kristian Fredrikson).
Possibly the triumph of Kerr’s choreographies, and certainly one of RNZB’s best, was Peter Pan, again with Norman and Fredrikson, with memorable performances by Jon Trimmer as an alluring Captain Hook, Shannon Dawson as the dim-witted Pirate Smee, and Jane Turner an exquisite mercurial Tinkerbell.
His sensitively nuanced productions of Swan Lake became benchmarks of the ever-renewing classic that deals with mortality and grief.
Leading New Zealand dancers who credit Russell for his formative mentoring include Patricia Rianne, whose Nutcracker and Bliss, after Katherine Mansfield, are evidence of her claim, ‘I never worked with a better or more musical dance mind.’ Among many others are Rosemary Johnston, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Dawn Sanders, Martin James, Geordan Wilcox, Jane Turner, Diana Shand, Turid Revfeim, Shannon Dawson, Toby Behan—through to Abigail Boyle and Loughlan Prior.
An unprecedented season happened in 1993 when Russell cast Douglas Wright, the country’s leading contemporary dancer, in the title role of Petrouchka. He claimed Wright’s performances challenged the legendary Nijinsky.
An annual series named in his honour, The Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, saw the 2021 session about his own life and career movingly delivered by his lifelong colleague and friend, Anne Rowse. The lecture was graced by a dance, Journey, that Russell had choreographed for two Japanese students who came to study with him. It would be the last performance of his work, the more poignant for that.
Russell was writing his memoirs in the last few years, admitting the struggle but determined to keep going. He said, ‘Writing about my problem with drink is going to be a very difficult chapter.’ Russell had told Brian Edwards in a memorable radio interview decades back, of the exhausting time when his colossal work commitments had driven him ‘to think that the solution to every problem lay in the bottom of the bottle.’ He eventually managed to turn that around and thereafter remained teetotal for life—but by admitting it on national radio, he was offering hope to anyone with a similar burden, himself proof that there is a way out of darkness.
He viewed the sunrise as an invitation to do something with the day. He would bring June a cup of tea but not let her drink it till she had greeted the sun. Recently he took great joy in seeing photos of my baby granddaughter, rejoicing to be reminded of the hope a new life brings to a family.
Russell concurred with the sentiment expressed in Jo Thorpe’s fine poem, The dance writer’s dilemma (reproduced in Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60):
… the thing… which has nothing to do with epitaph which has nothing to do with stone. I just know I walk differently out into air because of what dance does sometimes.
Russell Kerr was a good and decent family man, loyal friend, master teacher and choreographer, proud of his work but modest by nature, resourceful and determined by personality, honest in communication, distressed by unkindness, a leader by example. A phenomenal and irreplaceable talent, he was a very great New Zealander.
He is survived by son David, daughter Yvette and their families.
Russell Ian Kerr, QSM, ONZM, Arts Foundation Icon Born Auckland 10 February 1930 Married June, née Greenhalgh, one son (David), one daughter(Yvette) Died.Christchurch 28 March, 2022
Sources: David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Jon Trimmer, Patricia Rianne, Rosemary Buchanan, Martin James, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Ou Lu.
Jennifer Shennan, 3 April 2022
Featured image: Russell Kerr as director of Southern Ballet in 1983
This book is treasure and joy. It covers the lifelong career of Wellington-born Kristian Fredrikson, designer for ballet, theatre, opera, film and television in both New Zealand and Australia. The volume is itself an achievement of fine design—superbly presented and generously illustrated, though selective in the careful interpolation of images, both drawings and performance photographs, into the text. It is an appreciative profile by an author who clearly loves the work of her subject but, resisting hagiography, has produced perceptive analysis and an enduring record of his lifetime’s work in a notoriously ephemeral performing art. Both she and the publisher are to be congratulated.
Extensive research (Potter first conducted an oral history with Fredrikson in 1993) has allowed coverage of his prolific body of work. There are frequent quotations from his own unpublished writings about ideas and work processes, which I found illuminating. The appendices provide extensive documentation, leaving the text refreshingly accessible.
There are stimulating insights and analyses of both the aesthetic and historical influences in Fredrikson’s work (Klimt is there, Rothko is there, mediaeval Sicily, 19th century New Zealand, war-time Vietnam, outback and small-town Australia are there). Potter’s invaluable commentaries will help audiences follow, in retrospect, ‘new narratives from old texts’ in the innovative reworkings of classics such as Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake (1985) for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara (1992) and his Swan Lake (2002) both for The Australian Ballet.
Long-time ballet followers in New Zealand would say they knew Fredrikson’s work well, keeping memories for decades of his sumptuous Swan Lakes, the ingenious A Servant of Two Masters, a poignant Orpheus, a searing Firebird, an enigmatic Jean [Batten], a spirited Peter Pan, atmospheric A Christmas Carol, and hilarious The Nutcracker. The book also includes his prolific output across other genres of theatre away from ballet. It is fascinating to learn of Fredrikson’s sensitive and restrained approaches to plays and films such as Hedda Gabler, with Cate Blanchett, or those with Australian Aboriginal, Vietnamese or American Indian settings … ‘away from dancers who spend their time twirling around on their toes’. We thus see a different side to the designer who always prioritised the contribution he could make to a collaborative project, rather than use it as an opportunity to primarily display his own aesthetic.
Interviews with his ballet colleagues, especially Gray Veredon and Graeme Murphy, contribute to the portrayal of a deeply intelligent, thoughtful, private man with uncompromising respect for those trusted choreographers and directors with whom he worked most closely. The standout choreographic collaborations would have been with Murphy, Veredon and Russell Kerr, and they are quoted as appreciating the close integration of design and choreographic ideas, with a sense of movement always portrayed in the designs. Fredrikson did not dress mannequins, he dressed movers.
Dancers, too, appreciated this empathy, even when his costumes of period or character required particular weights, silhouettes and textiles. There are descriptions of his attending dance rehearsals to photograph sequences so as to be sure whatever fantasy he had in mind would also prove practical. Compromises and re-workings were sometimes required.
Increasingly, today’s ballet practitioners seem less and less interested in the source and history of their art. It is heartening to learn how Fredrikson’s starting point for his concepts grew out of impeccable historical research. Since my own work and interests lie in Renaissance and Baroque dance and related arts, I was pleased to copy out a passage from his own words, about transforming, or inventing a historical period:
The problem is most of us don’t know true period. We look at a Watteau painting and we say, ‘Oh that’s how they dressed in Watteau’s time.’ Well they didn’t. Watteau made up his own people. We look at Rembrandt and say, ‘That’s how they dressed in Rembrandt’s day.’ They did not. Rembrandt created costumes for them… Our understanding of the past is so unreal that even if I do the real history, it’s surreal. And I suppose that’s what I do. I go towards the real history and that seems extraordinary.
I am now very happy to have this quote as a fridge magnet in my kitchen. It seems to echo the equally interesting and challenging practice of a writer using historical or autobiographical fiction as an imaginative way of telling a ‘true’ story.
Chapter 6, New Zealand Impressions, has a fabulous full-page image of Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Jon Trimmer is portrayed as the seductively beautiful pirate, Peter Pan squatting at his feet is Everyboy—with a somewhat perplexed expression on his face, wondering why anyone would want to leave childhood and become an adult. The study for the Angel of Death in Murphy’s Orpheus is chillingly beautiful. The priceless comic play of Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi and Jon Trimmer as Pantalone in Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters is evidence of one of the best productions RNZB ever staged.
But it is the two quietly dramatic photographs from Veredon’s Tell me a Tale that could slow your breathing. The choreography tells a particular story, though it could have been the story of many a family. The cast are early European settlers arriving in New Zealand, meeting and interacting with Maori people. The young pakeha boy befriending a Maori girl brings forth a furious haka from her brother—performed by the much admired (and then much missed ) Warren Douglas. This was the most convincing representation of haka on a ballet stage I have seen in six decades of watching a range of attempts. What a sorry business that Tale was never restaged by RNZB, and it’s a safe if sad bet it is never likely to be—even though the original cast are around and could still be involved, and indeed the choreographer, one of New Zealand’s finest dance-makers, is still actively staging his works in Europe. I treasure these fine photographs of a talisman work from RNZB ‘s early repertoire, gone but not forgotten. It belongs here in New Zealand, exists nowhere else, and should be neither gone nor forgotten.
The eighth and final chapter ‘The Ultimate Ballet: Swan Lake’ is an insightful comparison of approaches taken to this classic work, tracing the five different productions Fredrikson worked on. There are both similar and contrasting elements within those stagings—revealing the nature of von Rothbart’s evil, learning that Odette’s mother’s tears created the lake that her daughter will drown in, and the possibility of lovers separated by death though reuniting in an afterlife. The themes of love, treachery and loyalty are the same as those we live by, so even quite different settings in any production of calibre are as close to home as we choose to invite them.
You could call this an illustrated biography of the life’s work of a totally committed theatre designer. His life was his work, and the book emulates the man. There is no gossip, no bodice-ripping tell-all of a private life, no imposed psychoanalysis, and Alleluia to that I say. If you want to know who Kristian Fredrikson was and what was important to him, read his work. Read this book.
Jennifer Shennan, 18 August 2020
Featured image: Stephen McTaggart and Kerry-Anne Gilberd in a scene from Gray Veredon’s Tell Me a Tale (detail). Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Collection of Gray Veredon
Bold Moves is a ‘something for everyone’ mixed bill of four works that include
old, older, new and not so new, with the dancers proving more than equal to the
demands of stylistic versatility for each of the contrasting choreographies.
The program requires a majority of female dancers across all the pieces, and
among them are three standout performers.
Serenade (to Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings), was choreographed
85 years ago by George Balanchine for students at his company’s ballet school.
Among the prolific choreographer’s scores of works, it sits lyrically apart, an
abstract style of classical movement with tweaks here and whimsy there, as he
built little mistakes made in rehearsal into the choreography, reflecting his
sense of fun when working with young dancers. The work was first staged here by
Una Kai, renowned former dancer with New York City Ballet, and our company’s
artistic director in 1970s. Harry Haythorne, subsequent director, staged it on
New Zealand School of Dance in 1980s and found there the perfect setting for it
with a student cast.
This line-up of 17 females in ‘moonlight blue’ danced the long first section with line and ensemble aspects finely wrought, but I missed the lightness of subtleties remembered (and a number of dancers from those earlier productions who were in the audience later agreed). Some performers had ethereal and distant facial expressions, while others grinned cheerfully at the audience—somewhat distracting since it’s not just the movement we are watching, but also the dancers’ thoughts we are following. What are they thinking? The second section with fewer dancers has a range of sculptured arm shapes and attractive groupings that are satisfying to follow. The woman beside me swooned and gasped with pleasure throughout as she sipped her wine. It’s always good to witness people enjoying themselves, but to my taste this was an oaked chardonnay.
The pas de deux that followed, Russian style
from 1932 but fashioned as though much earlier, Flames of Paris, is a sizzler for ballet competitions and the
virtuoso display of gala nights, so no great poetry here. Wrong. It’s all in
the how, not the what—and the quality of dancing by Mayu Tanigaito is a
revelation, as always. Her technique is so fabulously assured she can afford to
toss it to one side and simply offer us her pure pleasure at delivering a clean
line, an effortless turn, a nonchalant pose, all effort masked, a laughing toss
of the head, a loving smile, a way to live. She is the company’s longstanding
leading dancer in all these respects. Her partner was Laurynas Vejalis, also a
dancer of great technical ability, but he did not seem to be offering that as a
gift to her, so she instead offered hers to us. Lucky us. This was top-shelf
Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer, Andrea Schermoly, commissioned by RNZB in 2018, marks 125 years since the beginnings of universal suffrage. Danced by eight women who gave it a wonderfully strong and motivated reading, it encourages everyone to believe in democracy in a wider society, and in all the institutions within it. There are numerous back projections of text from suffragettes’ writings, which were not legible however from many areas of the auditorium, and it could seem wise to reduce this distraction since the text is already reproduced in the printed program, and its message built in to the choreography. Kirby Selchow and Madeleine Graham were truly standout performers among the totally focused cast. Brandy for courage, methinks.
William Forsythe’s Artifact II, 1984, perhaps with Orwell in mind, was brought here by his Ballett Frankfurt to an International Arts Festival season in 1994. It employs his hallmark extremism of anatomy +, with over-extensions of limbs creating shapes and thrusts that soon amount to shouting rather than speaking. (‘It’s hard to lip-read a shouting man’—Leonardo da Vinci warned us in the 15th century, and that is still the case). Two couples embark on simultaneous pas de deux, which is like four people speaking at once, impossible to watch or ‘hear’ them all. My eye gratefully went to Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria who danced with a totally immersed care and attention to each other, making quite the quality highlight of the piece. I know there exist interviews galore with Forsythe that explain the aesthetic and the choreographic intention of this work, but the reality is what comes to us across the footlights.
The Bach Chaconne used here means what we hear is the opposite of what we see. A chaconne is a baroque dance & music form that moves ever forward over a ground bass, without the theme & variations/verse & chorus structure of other baroque dances, and thus represents a through-composed journey. Douglas Lilburn caught well the notion of journeying in his solo piano composition by that title (worth choreographing some time?), but Bach’s chaconne is so wedded now to the talisman choreography by Jose Limon (given stellar performances by Baryshnikov in this same venue back in 1990s) with the solo musician alongside him on the stage. The dance, staged by Louis Solino, was also a number of times nobly performed here by Paul Jenden with Richard Mapp playing the Busoni piano transcription. Those achingly beautiful memories create a challenge to reconcile the use of the same music with a ballet like Artifact.
The curtain is
rung down numerous times while the work continues onstage (except in this
production we had the impression the dancing stopped then started again each
time the curtain rose). It has a point the first time, perhaps, but the
numerous repeats of the curtain crashing down become increasingly tiresome. I
still find this as cynical and fragmented a work as I did on earlier viewing,
and one cannot help but wonder what price the dancers pay for such extreme
physical demands made on them in its delivery. We have seen Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated in
several seasons by RNZB, also an extreme work, though the aesthetic there draws
on its thunderbolt percussive accompaniment. Excitement always won the day when
our former company dancers performed that work (most memorably Abigail Boyle,
Kohei Iwamotu, Laura Saxon Jones, Jacob Chown) who made it strikingly their
own. Artifact though is a cocktail of
For years our
company has had an equal weighting of female and male dancers, without a star
ranking system but with recognition of the strengths in individual dancers—as
classicists and actors, with character or humour—and with seasons extended over
ten days to offer opportunities for us to savour alternate casts in lead roles.
There was also a number of stellar visiting ballet masters, among the world’s
best, who brought refreshing stimulation to the dancers. The company now has a
new line-up and a new look—a system of star ranking introduced, seasons reduced
to only a few days, no visiting ballet masters, an increased number of dancers,
many more females than males, with a number of young performers and apprentices
it is too soon to identify individually, some trained locally but still
including many more imported to swell the ranks. That recruiting is difficult
to accept, given how many fine young dancers are in training throughout this
country, and how many other New Zealand dancers continue to search for work
abroad. (Wouldn’t a young dancer/graduate ensemble here offer them and the
country something to fill that gap?) And the company without Sir Jon Trimmer
retained to assist in the styling and staging of works, and as a quietly
masterful mentor to younger dancers, is not the one we have known for decades,
and a decision that remains indeed difficult to fathom.
Ballet companies, like families, grow from
their whakapapa. Every generation is itself, has parents and grandparents,
children and grandchildren. Our company’s early repertoire includes classics of New Zealand
vintage that could well be re-staged, (consider if you will—Tell me a Tale, Ragtime Dance Company, A Servant of Two Masters,
Bliss, No Exit, Dark Waves, The Decay of Lying, rose and fell, halo, Napoli.
Broadcast News, Sweet Sorrow, Mantodea, Charade, Prismatic Variations… none of which is older than Serenade) and many of our
choreographers and ballet masters with the required experience are
free-lancing here and abroad. If we don’t stage these works, no-one will. Kia mau te wehi, kia kaha. Ka tu ka ora, ka
noho ka mate.
Mauri, mauri, kam na mauri. Tekeraoi.(Bold Moves. Take courage. Standing up,
all is well, lying down, all is not well. Spirit, courage, blessings).
An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.
The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.
Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, TheRagtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.
Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.
We should tell our
grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them
photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they
draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their
favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good
important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and
Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have
Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by
everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is
overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal
New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and
colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say
Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’
‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.
The sagas of
company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were
referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the
fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding
impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on
to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr
and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.
Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’
Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’
Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.
A friend in the audience commented later—’One
thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was
talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to
speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence
and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been
a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and
performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently
encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in
physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such
generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his
weight in gold.
There are more stories to be found in
Jon’s recently published memoir, Why
Dance?and details of the
Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the
RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.
Jon has also
explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary
gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and
wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his
own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout
a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs
during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but
never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience
in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and
truckloads of performance memories.
Also apparent is a
deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the
whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and
made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’
Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During
my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T.
perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a
wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of
love, ownership and appreciation.’
Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.
So what did Jonty
do? He joined in the applause of course.
Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019
Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019
Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link.[Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]
Jonathan Taylor, dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre from 1976 to 1985, has died in Melbourne at the age of 77.
Taylor was born in Manchester, England, where he began tap and ballet lessons as a very young boy. As a teenager he was taught in London by Andrew Hardie at the International School of Dancing. His professional career began when he danced in musicals and pantomime shows in London. At that stage he was asked to change his name for theatrical purposes from John (his birth name) to Jonathan—a union representative discovered there was another John Taylor, a juggler, on the circuit.
In 1959 Taylor joined a company started by Leonide Massine with which Harry Haythorne was also involved, the Nervi International Ballet, before joining Amsterdam Ballet (later Dutch National Ballet), again with the involvement of Haythorne. In Amsterdam Taylor met his wife-to-be, Ariette van Rossen, also a dancer with Amsterdam Ballet, and shortly afterwards they moved to England. In England they joined Ballet Rambert, where Marie Rambert was fond of referring to Jonathan as ‘Jack’. Taylor toured extensively with the Rambert company, and also began his choreographic career with Diversities, made for Ballet Rambert in 1966, ‘Tis Goodly Sport in 1970, and Listen to the Music in 1972. He left Rambert in 1972 and took up a freelance career in 1973.
Taylor first came to Australia in 1975 to work with Ballet Victoria, then directed jointly by Garth Welch and Laurel Martyn. He was to stage his Listen to the Music, much admired by Peggy van Praagh, and create a new work. The new work turned out to be Star’s End and it was a huge hit in Melbourne. As a result, Taylor was invited back to Australia to be interviewed for the position of artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide. He was subsequently offered the position and arrived in Australia in 1976 with his wife and three children. He also brought with him Joe Scoglio and Julia Blaikie, close friends from his Rambert days, who joined him and Ariette Taylor to make up a foursome who would go on to make Australian Dance Theatre one of the most remarkable companies in the Australian contemporary dance world. Scoglio acted as assistant director, Blaikie as ballet mistress. Both also performed as dancers with the company.
Under Taylor the repertoire of Australian Dance Theatre included works from choreographers with whom Taylor had worked in England, in particular Christopher Bruce and Norman Morrice, as well as new works of his own. Some of his own works had Australian themes that drew on an English approach to Australian manners and attitudes—Incident a Bull Creek for example. Others, such as Wildstars, reflected his background in London with popular entertainment—many thought I’d sold my soul to the devil, he has remarked.** The company also had a strong emphasis on workshops and works for children, the latter led by Ariette Taylor who had begun working with children in London before the move to Australia. The company was initially jointly funded by the South Australian and Victorian governments. It toured widely in Australia and internationally.
Taylor left Australian Dance Theatre, unhappily, at the end of 1985. He and his family moved to Melbourne shortly afterwards. There he worked freelance, which included (at the invitation of Anne Woolliams) a brief period as choreographer in residence at the Victorian College of the Arts. He also worked in Holland with Netherlands Dance Theatre, as well as in a variety of other countries, and with several Australian companies including Kai Tai Chan’s One Extra Company and Maggie Sietsma’s Expressions Dance Company. In 1988 he was appointed Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts and in this capacity led both the tertiary and secondary schools until 1997. During those ten years he continued to choreograph, including in New Zealand where, in 1992, he created Hamlet for Harry Haythorne then directing the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
In the years following his work with the Victorian College of the Arts, Taylor again worked freelance, often in collaboration with Ariette Taylor with Handspan Theatre, where he was a board member from 1993 to 1998, and the Keene-Taylor Theatre Project.
In his recent oral history interview for the National Library of Australia, Taylor spoke of the one regret he had in life, which was that he had never been asked to choreograph for the Australian Ballet. But he also spoke emotionally of what he had especially enjoyed.
I enjoyed coming to Australia and having the ability to be in charge of my own company. It also allowed me not only to choreograph and be a creative person, and when I left the company in 1985 I don’t think they realised they were cutting off creativity as well as a job. I’m sure they didn’t, and that was a great blow. But it was wonderful to not set a standard, but set my standard—the standard of the dancing, the standard of the choreography, and the presentation of the performance.*** Listen to this quote
Jonathan Taylor is survived by his wife Ariette, their children, Ingmar, Juliet and Rebe, and their families.
John (Jonathan) Taylor: born Manchester, England 2 May 1941; died Melbourne Australia, 27 March 2019
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.
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
Early in August Sydney Dance Company announced the four recipients of commissions to create works for the company’s New Breed initiative. Kristina Chan, Fiona Jopp, Bernhard Knauer and Daniel Riley will present their dances at Carriageworks in a season running from 8 to 13 December. Commissions have also gone to independent designers Matt Marshall and Aleisa Jelbart, and musician/composers Nick Thayer, James Brown, Jürgen Knauer, Toby Merz and Alicia Merz, who will contribute to the creation of the works, which will be performed by artists from Sydney Dance Company.
I had always understood that it was very hot in those Essendon hangars where the Don Quixote production was filmed. From this image it appears that perhaps it was quite cold at times!
Harry Haythorne choreographic awards
The Royal New Zealand Ballet and the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand have announced two new choreographic awards to honour Harry Haythorne, artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet from 1981 to 1992. There will be two studio showings of new works choreographed by company dancers who will be in the running for two awards, one to be decided by a panel headed by present artistic director Francesco Ventriglia, and the other a People’s Choice award funded by money raised at the memorial event for Haythorne held in January. Dates for the showings are 12 and 13 September in the Royal New Zealand ballet studios, Wellington.
Press for August
‘Moving tribute to those who served.’ Review of Reckless Valour, QL2 Dance, The Canberra Times, 1 August 2015, p. 16. Online version.
‘Dalman and Jones going into dance Hall of Fame.’ Feature on the 2015 Australian Dance awards, The Canberra Times, 27 August 2015, ‘Times 2’, p. 6. Online version.
Now that my book, Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance, has been published, I have returned to my research into the life and art of Kristian Fredrikson. My article ‘Undercover designs’ will appear in the forthcoming issue (March 2015) of The National Library of Australia Magazine. The research behind this article reflects part of the work I did on the film Undercover (costume design by Kristian Fredrikson) while the recipient of a Scholars and Artists in Residence Fellowship at the National Film and Sound Archive in 2012. [Update: Here is the link to the article].
Blonde Ambition at the National Portrait Gallery
National institutions in Canberra often use dance in the public programs associated with their exhibitions. The National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia, in particular, have been active lately. Most recently, Blonde Ambition, the female trio who investigate through dance the ideal of the feminine, appeared at the National Portrait Gallery for two shows on 28 February in conjunction with the exhibition In the Flesh.
Wearing their trademark, light-coloured, contemporary version of the corset, they showed us their choreographed poses, their attitude to physical activity, to eating, and a host of other areas in which women find themselves performing. They move well, this trio of women, and manage to inject a good dose of humour and smart social comment without it being overblown or too exaggerated. They performed to a collage of bird sounds, the clip clop of horses and a variety of songs interspersed with narrative. Bouquets.
Recently, while expanding on my obituary for Harry Haythorne for another purpose, I came across an article Haythorne had written in 2001 for a special Australian edition of the journal Choreography and dance: an international journal (volume 6, parts 2 and 3).This issue, which I had forgotten about until now I’m afraid, was edited by Meg Denton and focused on influences and trends in Australian dance. Haythorne’s article ‘How I became a dancer—Aussie style—in the 1930s’, is an exceptional account of Haythorne’s early training and childhood performances in Adelaide, and gives a good idea of terms that are no longer current, ‘fancy dancing’ and the like. Highly recommended.
Press for February 2015 (Update May 2019: Online links to articles published prior to mid 2015 in The Canberra Times are no longer available)
‘Understanding the dance unlocks supreme equation.’ Review of Metasystems and Post phase: the summit is blue, The Canberra Times, 14 February 2015, ARTS, p. 20.
Michelle Potter, 28 February 2015
Featured image: Fabric samples for Kristian Fredrikson’s costumes for the film Undercover, from the article Undercover Designs.
At the end of this month, members of the dance community will come together in both Melbourne and Wellington, to honour Harry Haythorne who died in November 2014. Today Philippe Charluet, film maker extraordinaire, sent me a link to some footage he had edited. It shows Harry rehearsing for and performing in Tivoli, and it includes that wonderful tap dancing routine. We are so lucky to have Philippe caring so much about our dance heritage.