Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet in 2014

The Australian Ballet recently announced its season for 2014. The inclusion of Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère, made for Houston Ballet in 2010, seems to have caused the biggest stir in the press with reports that live snakes and a snake wrangler will make an appearance. Reptiles and their handlers aside, it is certainly a step in an interesting direction to have a new work from Welch (new to Australia anyway) on the program given that he has continued to hold the post of a resident choreographer while also being artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003.

Although I was not overly impressed with Welch’s recent Rite of Spring, I look forward to seeing this full-length Bayadère and hope that he has tightened up the story a little. ‘La Bayadère is a recurring problem’, as American Dance Magazine noted not so long ago.

But for me the most interesting program on the 2014 list is a mixed bill entitled Chroma. It includes Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, an exciting work made on the Royal Ballet in 2006. I loved its minimalism and its collaborative aesthetic when I saw it a couple of years ago. The Chroma program also includes two short pieces by Jiri Kylian, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze.

The Australian Ballet showed these two Kylian pieces in 2005 and who can forget those wonderfully fluid duets from Petite Mort, not to mention the fencing foils that the men manipulate in the opening sequences, or those roll-along, black ballgowns! It’s hard to forget Sechs Tänze too, a curiously playful work in which the dancers wear costumes designed by Kylian, which he calls ‘Mozartian underwear’. This program also includes a new work by Stephen Baynes.

A second mixed bill entitled Imperial Suite consists of George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc. The season also includes Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, which we have seen so many times in Australia, and Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker.

I am looking forward to an exciting season in 2014 although I’d rather something other than Manon as a third evening length work.

Michelle Potter, 6 September 2013

Here is a is a link to a Houston Ballet preview of Welch’s Bayadère. Watch out for a variation from the Kingdom of the Shades scene danced by Nozomi Iijima. It comes towards the end of the four minute preview.

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in Petite Mort. Photo: Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The Rite of Spring. Houston Ballet

15 March, Brown Theater, Wortham Center, Houston, TX

Houston Ballet’s most recent program had the slightly confusing title of The Rite of Spring when in fact it was a triple bill in which Stanton Welch’s reimagining of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was simply the final offering on the program. Nevertheless, it was probably the most anticipated of the three works on show although I’m not sure the extensive media build-up was entirely justified.

Welch dispensed with the narrative of human sacrifice that marked the original, infamous 1913 production of Rite of Spring. His production began in something of a primeval manner with a horde of Neanderthal-looking men whose fearsome arrival onstage caused a band of women to flee the stage, thus establishing a primitive, tribal background to the work. But from there the piece seemed to disintegrate into a mixture of cultural references culminating midway through in some kind of wedding or association between a man and a woman, who for the occasion was bound in white garments by her female friends. Just what happened to the couple later on was not clear to me other than that they danced with the rest of the tribe in a passionate frenzy of movement. The work seemed to peter out at the end.

Nor was it clear just exactly who theses tribes were. Costumes and make-up, which included heavy body markings, recalled Aztec ornamentation, a least to me, although there were times when the grass skirts of Polynesia and Melanesia seemed to surface. Heavy, black eye make-up sometimes made the dancers look like they were wearing sunglasses and at other times made their eyes look quite red as though they had been caught in a camera flash. I thought overall the costume/make-up design was considerably overwrought.

This stood in sharp contrast to two magnificent backcloths created from two paintings by Australian indigenous artist Rosella Namok. Namok’s works, ‘Stinging Rain’ and ‘Marks on the Sand, After King Tide’, were beautifully enlarged by Houston Ballet’s backstage team. They had a strong but simple message and it is curious that Welch, according to all press material and published interviews, chose her work because he thought it had a universal quality to it. Well that’s just what Welch’s production didn’t have. It lacked a simple, strong message and a clear sense of focus and, with its myriad of references to other cultures, couldn’t be called universal.

Choreographically Welch worked very closely with the music and there was scarcely a note that didn’t have a corresponding step. Everything looked very busy and as a result the Stravinsky score sounded quite different. To me it seemed to have lost its integrity.

Creating a new Rite of Spring will always bring out a very personal side of any choreographer it seems. The Welch production was not to my liking I’m afraid and I’m beginning to suspect that the versions that work best for me maintain the links to the original narrative or else diverge entirely from it. Welch was unable to establish a new, satisfying pathway or a link to the old one.

The evening opened with Mark Morris’ Pacific danced to Lou Harrison’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. It seemed a little like a religious celebration possibly because of the constant use of uplifted  arms and the placing of the hands in front of the body, palms facing each other, as if holding an devotional item between the hands, or as if in a kind of open praying gesture. Morris’ choreography followed the impetus of the music but the constant bending to the floor as if in homage to something (the music?) also emphasised a kind of religiosity.

Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration, especially created on Houston Ballet and receiving its world premiere in this program, began with a single female dancer moving slowly down a diagonal, But just as one began to ponder the serenity with which she accomplished this walk, the stage was filled with dancers. They formed groups broke apart, met and left the stage in a flurry of movement that lasted for the entire first movement of Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Esoconcerto. As explained in a program note the title of the work refers to the intricate patterns formed by starlings during flight and the constantly changing choreographic groupings alluded to these patterns.

The second movement consisted of a series of duets which showed Liang’s emphasis on how bodies can work together as they intertwine and contort, and in so doing how they often appear as one. The men hold our attention in the third movement and for a while the women group themselves at the back and watch the men display their athleticism.

Murmuration is beautifully designed. The simple, grey costumes, designed by Liang and Houston Ballet’s wardrobe manager Laura Lynch, move beautifully with the dancers. The pale grey leotards with attached chiffon panels for the women, and the wide legged trousers softy gathered at the waist for the men enhance and never detract from the choreography. The background, which relies on Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting for its strongest effect, changes from a simple grey-lit cloth in the first movement to what looks like a cascade of fireflies in the second. And as the third movement progresses the fireflies turn to small white shapes (of paper I guess) falling softly to the ground.

Murmuration deserved the ecstatic reaction it received from the audience at the performance I attended although there were times when I thought there was a little too much repetition in the choreography.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2013

Dance diary. March 2012

  • Kristian Fredrikson in New Zealand

In March I spent a week in Wellington, New Zealand, looking into the work made by Kristian Fredrikson for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera. I have nothing but praise for the staff of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Film Archive of New Zealand, the Dowse Art Museum and the National Library of New Zealand (despite the fact that the Library is currently closed to the public due to renovations) for their generous help with my research activities.

I was especially interested to see a recording of Swan Lake (that ballet again) from 1985—a production by Harry Haythorne who was at the time the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director. It linked up nicely with some designs for this production I had recently been examining in the National Library’s Fredrikson collection and it is always a bonus to see designs transformed into costumes and worn by dancers. Not only that, Haythorne’s production was quite different from anything I had seen before concentrating as it did on the character of Siegfried more than Odette, making something quite different out of von Rothbart and making a strong distinction between reality and fantasy. It was then a further bonus to see some of the costumes themselves, with their quite astonishing layering of fabric to achieve a textured look, at the Dowse.

It was also a pleasure to speak to former Australian Ballet principal, Greg Horsman, currently ballet master with the Royal New Zealand. His recollections of working with Fredrikson complemented those I recorded last year with Miranda Coney. Coney and Horsman are pictured below in the pas de deux from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, in its first staging of 1992.

Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney, 'Nutcracker' 1992
Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet 1992. Photo: Don McMurdo. Courtesy National Library of Australia
  • Bruce Morrow (1928–2012)

I was saddened to hear of the death in March of Bruce Morrow, whose career included performances with the National Theatre Ballet and the Borovansky Ballet. He danced in some ground-breaking Australian productions, including Rex Reid’s Corroboree and the Borovanksy Ballet’s full length Sleeping Princess. Following his career as a performer he was for many years a highly regarded teacher at the Australian Ballet School and elsewhere. He is seen below as one of the Three Ivans in the 1951 Borovansky production of The Sleeping Princess. I interviewed Bruce in 2000 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. Here is the link to the catalogue record.

The Three Ivans, Borovansky Ballet 1951
(top to bottom) Bruce Morrow, Ron Paul and Tom Merrifield as the Three Ivans in The Sleeping Princess, Borovansky Ballet, 1951. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia
  • Stanton Welch’s Tapestry

I have been a fan of Houston Ballet since visiting Houston last year where, as in Wellington, I was treated more than generously by everyone with whom I came into contact. There’s a lovely clip available on YouTube from Welch’s newest work Tapestry.

  • The Ballets russes tribute programs continue

I read with interest Ismene Brown’s review of a recent English National Ballet season.

  • Site news

With Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet playing a season in Brisbane during March interest has been revived in the posts and comments on this site relating to that production. In addition, Brisbane for the first time was one of the top five cities in terms of numbers of visitors accessing the site. It came in third behind Melbourne and Sydney and was followed by Canberra and London. The top post for March was the review of the Australian Ballet’s Infinity program.

Michelle Potter, 30 March 2012

Kristian Fredrikson, designs for 'Undercover' (Bright Young Things and Eastern Corset Dancers). National Library of Australia

Dance diary. November 2011

  • SAR Fellowship: National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA)

In 2012 I will be taking up a SAR Fellowship, SAR being the acronym for Scholars and Artists in Residence, for two months at the National Film and Sound Archive. This Fellowship will enable me to investigate a lesser known aspect of the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, namely his commissions for film and television. In addition to designing costumes for one or two televised ballets in the late 1960s, in the 1980s Fredrikson worked on at least three feature films, Undercover, Sky Pirates, and Short Changed, and three mini-series for television, The Shiralee, The Dirtwater Dynasty and Vietnam. I’m looking forward to delving into this aspect of Fredrikson’s multi-faceted career.

The SAR program aims to promote the NFSA as a centre for scholarly activity, to encourage and facilitate research relating to the NFSA collections and programs and to bring new ideas and expertise to the NFSA.

  • Houston Ballet

In addition to my meeting with Stanton Welch while in Houston recently, which was the subject of a recent post, I spent half a day with Laura Lynch, Houston Ballet’s wardrobe manager. Laura spoke to me at length about Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for ‘Pecos’, part of a Houston Ballet evening length program called Tales of Texas, and Fredrikson’s last work, a new version of Swan Lake. Both works had choreography by Stanton Welch and his Swan Lake, which premiered after Fredrikson’s death, was dedicated to Fredrikson. We also visited the HB warehouse, a little out of town, to have a look at the costumes themselves.

Rack of costumes for Houston Ballet's 'Swan Lake'
Rack of costumes for the Houston Ballet production of Swan Lake. Photo: © Michelle Potter
  • Miranda Coney Barker

Most readers of this site will remember Miranda Coney, a much-loved principal of the Australian Ballet during the 1990s. Miranda is now living in New York with her husband, conductor Charles Barker, and their two young sons. I caught up with her while in New York and was more than delighted to know that she has been giving class to young dancers in the current Broadway production of Billy Elliot—‘quite a challenge’ she says!

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards: Dance 2011

In November the Canberra Critics’ Circle met to discuss nominations for its annual awards, which were presented on 29 November. Two dance awards were made. Liz Lea received an award for her creative use of archival material from Canberra collecting institutions in her solo production of 120 Birds. Lea showed 120 Birds as a work for a small company at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 but reworked it as a solo show for presentation in February 2011 as an event associated with the National Gallery of Australia’s Ballets Russes exhibition. She drew on material from the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Library of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia bringing it all together to pay homage to those intrepid artists who toured to and from Australia when communications were not the instant experience we know today.

Photos from Lea’s Gallery performance are at this link.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman received an award for her poignant and moving show Sapling to Silver, which was the story of a vibrant life—her own life in dance. I recall in particular from that show a duet between Dalman and Albert David in which two cultural heritages were juxtaposed, as were two lives lived in different generations. The citation for Dalman’s award also mentioned the seamless way in which the various sections of the work were put together to deliver a beautifully produced whole.

  • ‘The fire and the rose’

The link to my tribute to Valrene Tweedie, an article originally published in Brolga. An Australian journal about dance in December 2008 and posted on this site in July 2009, is not currently available as it was previously via the Ausdance website. The National Library of Australia’s web archiving service, Pandora, came to the rescue however and the tribute is now available at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2011

Featured image: Kristian Fredrikson, designs for Undercover (Bright Young Things and Eastern Corset Dancers). National Library of Australia

Kristian Fredrikson, designs for 'Undercover' (Bright Young Things and Eastern Corset Dancers). National Library of Australia

Stanton Welch. ‘An Aussie in Houston’

A recent visit to the United States saw me in Houston, Texas, where I was able to have a look at Houston Ballet’s new premises and enjoyed being shown around by Stanton Welch. And there is more than one Aussie at Houston Ballet these days. Below is the text of a story published on 26 November 2011 in The Canberra Times under the heading ‘An Aussie in Houston’.

Stanton Welch in rehearsal. Photo: © Bruce Bennetts. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

—Stanton Welch is in a buoyant mood as he shows me around Houston Ballet’s stunning new home in downtown Houston, Texas. Melbourne-born Welch has been artistic director of Houston Ballet, the fourth largest ballet company in the United States, for eight years. The company moved into its six-storey headquarters in February of this year and the new studios—nine of them—are huge with high ceilings and lots of windows letting in the beautiful Texan light. In some, children are taking a ballet class. In others, company members are rehearsing for the forthcoming production of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker and for the annual gala, Jubilee of Dance. The building hums with activity.

Welch, a young-looking 42 year old, is the elder son of Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch, former principal dancers with both the Borovansky and the Australian Ballets. Both also worked with Sydney Dance Company and both are teachers of renown. Their second son, Damien, retired quite recently from his position as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Together the four of them are familiarly called the “Royal Family of Australian Ballet” such is their collective status in the Australian dance world. Damien is also currently in Houston to stage his brother’s production of Cinderella for Houston Ballet next year. And indeed the month of November is something of a family time. Jones is also visiting. “Mum comes over a couple of times a year. I usually try to get her to do a bit of teaching while she’s here,” Welch says with a grin.

Welch was a late starter in the ballet world: he took his first lessons only when 16. But there was no looking back after that. He choreographed his first piece, Hades, during the first year of his dance training in 1986 and it won several eisteddfod prizes. By 1989 he had joined the Australian Ballet and in 1990 received his first choreographic commission, which resulted in A Time to Dance for the Dancers Company of the Australian Ballet. He went on to make his first major piece, Of Blessed Memory, for the main company in 1991. By 1995 he was a resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet and remains so, from a distance, to this day. The extent of his choreographic output by now is remarkable and includes works for major companies around the world. He was appointed artistic director of Houston Ballet in 2003 and for the moment he seems firmly entrenched in Houston, largest city in the state of Texas.

“What I love about working here”, he says “is that the dancers are so energised. There is absolutely no complacency. We are so lucky with audiences too. They are very adventurous and brave when it comes to new work, which is great for a choreographer. Our subscriptions continued to grow even during the recession.”

But as I look into the studios from the viewing windows I am struck by the fact that there are Australians in a number of the studios. Ballet master Steven Woodgate is busy rehearsing a large number of dancers for a group scene in Nutcracker. A Churchill Fellowship awardee for 2000, Woodgate retired from the Australian Ballet, where he was senior artist for several years, and took up the position of ballet master at Houston in 2004, the year after Welch’s arrival.

In another studio Luke Ingham, who grew up on a farm in Mount Gambier, South Australia, is rehearsing for his first princely role, that of the Prince in Nutcracker. Ingham has been with the company since July 2011 and has just toured to New York with Houston Ballet where he also took the opportunity to catch up with four of his former Australian Ballet colleagues. They were in New York to dance and promote the Australian Ballet’s New York visit in 2012.

Ingham will be dancing in Houston’s Nutcracker with his partner in life Danielle Rowe, a former Australian Ballet principal who joined Houston Ballet early in 2011. He is looking forward to the occasion. “It’s great to work with someone you love,” he says. “I love being out there on stage with Dani.”

In her relatively short time in Houston to date Rowe has already made a name for herself. A dazzling dancer and winner of a 2010 Helpmann Award as best female dancer in a dance or physical theatre production, Rowe has so far danced leading roles in Houston productions of two major classics, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. In Giselle, a production staged by yet another Australian artist, dancer and coach Ai-Gul Gaisina, critics spoke glowingly of Rowe’s performance as “gossamer-spirited.” and noted that she moved like “a tissue in a breeze.”

There have been Australians in the Houston company for a while. Mary McKendry, who was brought up and learnt to dance in Rockhampton, Queensland, was a principal dancer with Houston Ballet in the 1980s when a young man from Mao’s China defected while on an exchange visit to Houston Ballet. His name was Li Cunxin and McKendry eventually married him. They moved to Australia where Li would go on to have a stellar career with the Australian Ballet, write his best selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer and eventually become a stockbroker in Melbourne. Li often returns to Houston and did so earlier this month to be honoured for his achievements by the Houston-based organisation Dance of Asian America.

Danielle Rowe and Simon Ball in Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty, 2011. Photo: © Ron McKinney. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

What is it that draws Australian dancers to Houston Ballet? Welch believes that it is the varied repertoire that the company offers. His dancers get the opportunity to perform in works that he creates himself, works by acclaimed American and European choreographers and both old and new takes on the classics. Danielle Rowe suggests the same. Along with a positive work ethic, it was what she was looking forward to most of all when she left the Australian Ballet for a new career in Houston. Ingham couldn’t resist the thought though that, with his farming background, there might be the added attraction of the Texan cowboy culture! But whatever it is, the vibes are good at Houston Ballet. Welch strides through his new domain laughing and joking and generously accommodating my every request.—

And in addition to those Australians mentioned above, former Australian Ballet dancer Andrew Murphy is an instructor at Houston Ballet’s academy. Murphy is married to Sabrina Lenzi, ballet mistress of Houston Ballet II, a company similar in outlook and mission to the Australian Ballet’s Dancers Company.

Michelle Potter, 26 November 2011

Featured image: Stanton Welch in rehearsal (detail). Photo: © Bruce Bennetts. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

Vicki Attard. A new role

Vicki Attard at work

It was a real pleasure catching up, if only by email, with Vicki Attard, former and much admired principal of the Australian Ballet during the 1990s. Vicki was in Canberra over the past weekend to give master classes at the Canberra Dance Development Centre.

Below is the text of a Canberra Times article I wrote, which was published on 9 November. It was accompanied by a great image, shot by Canberra-based photographer Ross Gould, of Vicki in what became a signature role, that of Cio Cio San in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, which can be accessed on the National Library’s website.

Vicki Attard was one of Australia’s favourite ballerinas during the 1990s. As a principal artist with the Australia Ballet throughout that decade she danced leading roles in all the best known classics as well as creating roles in contemporary works. She travelled widely with the company and counts amongst the highlights of her performing career dancing the leading role of Kitri in Don Quixote on the opening night of an Australian Ballet season in Washington DC and the title role in Manon in Tokyo, also on opening night.

Fans of the film maker Paul Cox may remember her in Cox’s film The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. Attard was the girl returning from a ball who dances with the spirit of a rose in the short work entitled Le Spectre de la rose. Spectre was first performed in 1911 with Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the Rose. Attard, who was partnered by David McAllister in the film, cannot speak highly enough of Cox.’Paul Cox was so easy to work with’, she says. ‘He has an incredible respect for artists and he is a remarkable one himself.’

Attard also spent a year performing with Sydney Dance Company in 1989. Memorably she danced the role of Chloe in Graeme Muphy’s Daphnis and Chloe. She seemed especially suited to Murphy’s choreography and later, on rejoining the Australian Ballet, danced the leading role of Clara the Ballerina in Nutcracker, again partnered by McAllister, with whom she enjoyed an exceptional artistic partnership throughout her career.

But Attard may well be best known for her performances as Cio Cio San in Stanton Welch’s production of Madame Butterfly, a role she created with the Australian Ballet in 1995. The delicacy of her performance left a lasting impression on those who saw her in this role. Attard has since staged Butterfly around the world for Welch, including in Canada for the National Ballet of Canada, in Atlanta for Atlanta Ballet, in Boston for Boston Ballet and in even in Houston for Houston Ballet where Welch is currently artistic director. Most recently she assisted Welch in reviving the work for the Australian Ballet in 2010.

After she retired from performing Attard gained a graduate diploma in dance instruction and has been teaching in a freelance capacity since then. She now heads up a special program at Academy Ballet in Sydney for students aiming for a professional career.

‘It is s small group of just eight students’, she says. ‘It’s very personal and I love working in this way. The young dancers respond beautifully to this way of working.’

Attard will be in Canberra on November 13 to conduct master classes for the Canberra Dance Development Centre. It is the final session in the school’s master class series, a program master-minded by the school’s principal, Jackie Hallahan. Attard knows that it is not so easy for east coast students in centres outside Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to have access to the kinds of experiences available in larger centres.

‘I love the idea of sharing the knowledge that took me so many years to accumulate—the hard way’, she says. ‘I very much enjoy teaching in centres where students don’t have access to all that students in bigger cities might have. I grew up in a small town called Mackay in North Queensland, so I remember what it was like.’

Attard will bring her exceptional professional experience to Canberra for this workshop series. Not only does she have sound dance knowledge and her own incomparable artistry to share, she has recently launched a program called My Pointe. She realised that it was not always possible for dance teachers to spend as much time as was needed on the specialised teaching of pointe work for girls and so began to develop a series of tutorial exercises for this very purpose. After 10 years of fine tuning My Pointe was released on DVD with an introductory section by Attard and demonstrations of the exercises by two students.

Attard has two young sons, George aged eight and Nick almost six, who keep her busy.

‘I used to think that a dance life was hard,’ she says, ‘but motherhood, plus working almost full time, rivals it.’ But despite the claims of motherhood, Attard has carved a new niche for herself in the Australian dance world and she is more than delighted to be sharing her knowledge with the Canberra community.

Michelle Potter, 14 November 2011