Dance diary. December 2020

The best of everything to those who have followed this website over the past year. Thank you for your loyalty. And here’s hoping that 2021 will be one that is filled with dance, even live dance perhaps? Stay safe and healthy.

  • Highlights of 2020 (on and off stage)

I was very fortunate to see the opening night performance of Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince. It had a short run in Brisbane in February but showings elsewhere were cancelled due to the pandemic. I really would like to see it again as there was a lot there that needed a second look. I hope we will see it again, given that the leadership of the Australian Ballet has changed.

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

By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake March in which, over several weekends in August, eight dancers, accompanied by two musicians, made their way around Canberra’s three lakes. They paused briefly on occasions to engage with each other and with the rather surprised audience of joggers, bike riders and so on who were also using the lakeside for exercise. Lake March won Plevey a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in December. The citation read:

For courageously working within the restrictive conditions generated by COVID-19 to bring an innovative and entertaining production of dance and live music, presented in several outdoor venues, to an audience of dance goers and the wider Canberra community. Alison Plevey for Lake March.

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

In October we were able to venture into the theatre for a QL2 Dance program featuring a work called Sympathetic Monsters by Jack Ziesing. It was an absorbing work in terms of its choreographic structure and in its thematic content.

Of course I watched many streamed performances over the course of 2020. It was more than interesting to see close-up images of faces and expressions and also details of costume. Nothing can replace a live performance but I derived much pleasure from streamed performances, especially from companies I wouldn’t normally see. Borrowed Light from Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company in collaboration with Boston Camerata was perhaps the most outstanding example. I was transfixed by this performance and have Jacob’s Pillow to thank for streaming it as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival 2020.

Dancers from the Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
  • Sunil Kothari (1933–2020). Indian dance critic

I was saddened to hear of the death of Indian dance writer Sunil Kothari from complications of COVID-19. He visited Australia on a number of occasions and I recall a talk he gave in Canberra for the Canberra Critics’ Circle, several years ago now. He was a passionate advocate for dance and was a mentor to Padma Menon, who performed extensively in Canberra during the 1990s.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer featured as the ‘Publishing Spotlight’ in the Summer 2020–2021 edition of the newsletter of the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The review was written by Friends Committee Member and well known Canberra-based arts and craft specialist, Meredith Hinchliffe. Follow this link to read the review.

  • Site news

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

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

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

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

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

Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling in 'Duplex' at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze

Dance diary. October 2020

  • Jack Riley

I recently had the opportunity to write a short article about Melbourne-based dancer and choreographer Jack Riley for The Canberra Times, my first piece of writing for this particular outlet in 50 weeks given certain changes that have happened to performing arts writing lately. My story had to have a particular focus and so I was not able to mention the commission Riley had from the University of Melbourne last year, which involved a trip to Florence, Italy, where he made a work called Duplex. The Canberra Times used neither the headshot nor an image from Florence, both of which were sent to me by Riley. But the Florence shot was so striking I have used it as the featured image for this month’s dance diary. A PDF of the story published in The Canberra Times is available at the end of this post. See ‘Press for October 2020’.

  • Jan Pinkerton (1963–2020)

I only recently heard the sad news that Jan Pinkerton, dancer and choreographer, had died in August. She performed with Sydney Dance Company, Australian Choreographic Ensemble (as a founding member), and Bangarra Dance Theatre. The eulogy at the funeral service was given by Lynn Ralph, general manager of Sydney Dance Company 1985–1991 and a long-term friend of Pinkerton. In it she told us the role Jan Pinkerton most liked performing was Act II of Graeme Murphy’s Nearly Beloved. I found the image below in the National Library’s collection and, in lieu of a detailed obituary, I am including it in this month’s dance diary.

Jan Pinkerton and Ross Philip in Nearly Beloved, Act II. Sydney Dance Company 1991. Photo: Don McMurdo. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Lynn Ralph’s eulogy is a moving one and contains words from Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon as well as from Stephen Page. The funeral service was recorded and is available online.

  • Australian Dance Awards

The short lists for the Australian Dance Awards for 2018 and 2019, with the exception of the awards for Lifetime Achievement, have been released. The winners will be announced at a specially filmed event in December. Stay tuned for more. The short lists are available at this link.

  • Marge Champion (1919–2020)

Marge Champion, dancer and actor in Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, and inspiration to many over the years, has died in Los Angeles at the age of 101. I discovered that she had died via Norton Owen who posted the image below on his Facebook page.

Marge Champion and Norton Owen dancing together in 2014

In his brief comment about the relationship he had with her I found out one more thing about the Jacob’s Pillow site. Blake’s Barn, home of the incredible Jacob’s Pillow Archives, was named after Marge Champion’s son, Blake. The building’s donor was Marge Champion. She is seen in the video clip below dancing with her husband Gower Champion in the final scene from Lovely to Look At.

Here is a link to an obituary published in The Guardian.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Unity Books in Wellington hosted a lunchtime forum in its bookstore on 15 October. The forum was chaired by Jennifer Shennan and featured former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Anne Rowse and Sir Jon Trimmer.

(l-r) Anne Rowse, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Sir Jon Trimmer and Jennifer Shennan discussing Kristian Fredrikson. Designer at the Unity Books forum, Wellington, October 2020.

A particularly interesting comment was made at the end of the discussion by John Smythe of the New Zealand review site, Theatreview. Smythe was playwright-in-residence with Melbourne Theatre Company when MTC was producing Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie in 1970. He recalled that Sir Tyrone was taken aback by the costume for Helena in Act III (design reproduced in the book on p. 47) when he saw it during the tech run. He turned to Smythe and said ‘I’ve made a mistake. She’s got no business in that dress.’ Apparently he thought it was overly elaborate for the character he had drawn in his production but, knowing how much work had gone into the design and the making of the costume itself, he resolved not to tell Fredrikson but to live with the error. Smythe is seen below making his comment with the book open at the costume in question.

John Smythe at the Unity Books forum on Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, Wellington October 2020

And on Twitter from Booksellers NZ: ‘Stopped by our local Unity Books & thrilled to have stumbled on a lunchtime talk including one of my heroes, the marvellous Sir Jon Trimmer. Celebrating the launch of Kristian Fredrikson: Designer by Michelle Potter.’

  • Press for October 2020

‘The Canberran dancer in an Archibald Portrait’. Story about dancer Jack Riley whose portrait by Marcus Wills achieved finalist status in the 2020 Archibald Prize and is hanging in the Art Gallery of NSW at present. The Canberra Times, 26 October 2020, p. 10. Here is a link to a PDF of the story.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2020

Featured image: Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling in a moment from Duplex, 2019. Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenzi

Australian Dance Party in 'Lake March', Canberra 2020.

Dance diary. August 2020

  • Lake March. Australian Dance Party

Canberra’s dance companies, large and small, have always been good at making site specific works, especially in outdoor venues. The city lends itself well to such events. Canberra dance-goers will remember exceptional performances in outdoor venues from past companies such as Meryl Tankard Company and Paige Gordon and Performance Group.

Canberra’s current professional company, Australian Dance Party led by Alison Plevey, has continued the tradition with many of Plevey’s productions taking place outdoors. August saw ADP’s Lake March, a response over several weekends to the difficult situation dance companies find themselves in at present. Performing as part of the Where You Are Festival around three of Canberra’s lake areas, Lakes Burley Griffin, Ginninderra, and Tuggeranong, eight dancers and two musicians (Michael Liu on violin and Alex Voorhoeve on cello) moved in a line around the edges of the lake areas, observing social distancing as they proceeded. They paused occasionally and engaged in spontaneous expressive movement before continuing the march until they reached a final destination.

Lake March attracted an interested audience of cyclists, kids on scooters, joggers and Canberrans enjoying the outdoors. A few performances in mid-August were postponed, however, when the weather was less than warm. It was snowing in some parts of Canberra!

Australian Dance Party in Lake March, Canberra 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim.
  • Jacob’s Pillow: the name

Regular visitors to my website will know that I have a great fondness for Jacob’s Pillow, that amazing dance venue (and it’s more than a performance venue) in Massachusetts. I have just recently posted reviews of two of the Pillow’s 2020 digital offerings—a program from the Royal Danish Ballet, and Borrowed Light from Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata. Both were terrific performances.

I have, however, occasionally wondered why the site was called Jacob’s Pillow and so I was interested to discover (somewhat belatedly given that I was at the Pillow in 2007!) the history behind the name.

The YouTube link above shows Norton Owen, Director of Preservation at the Pillow, explaining the origins of the name.

  • Freeman. A new documentary to watch

The ABC has produced a documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of Cathy Freeman’s historic win in the 400m sprint at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The film is co-directed by Stephen Page and features Bangarra dancer Lillian Banks as a young Cathy Freeman. The documentary includes archival footage, interviews and dance sequences. It will be available on ABC iview from 13 September.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Some reviews and comments

In addition to the review of my recent publication, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, written by Jennifer Shennan and posted on this site, here are some reviews and a comment made during August.

Australian Arts Review (this review also appeared in Canberra CityNews)

Sydney Arts Guide

And from Sir Jon Trimmer, esteemed former dancer with Royal New Zealand Ballet in a note to Unity Books in Wellington:

What a magnificent book this is. Michelle Potter has been able to bring Australia and New Zealand close together by including all of Kristian’s work in both countries. Our own ballet company’s history is brought to life in a very special way… and there’s even mention of the Chez Lily, that Dixon Street coffee bar where we spent so much time talking about our dreams and our work, back in the day. I thought I was the only person who remembered it. We are very lucky that Michelle has produced this special book. It is one to treasure.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2020

Featured image: Australian Dance Party in Lake March, Canberra 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim.

Australian Dance Party in 'Lake March', Canberra 2020.

Borrowed Light. Jacob’s Pillow Virtual Festival 2020

Borrowed Light is a collaborative endeavour between the dancers of Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company and the singers of Boston Camerata. Inspired by the Shaker movement as it was made manifest in the United States largely during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it premiered in France in 2004, came to Jacob’s Pillow in 2006, and then again in 2012. A film of that 2012 production was recently screened as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival for 2020. With choreography by Saarinen, accompanied by traditional Shaker songs sung by Boston Camerata, and with some stunning contributions from others in the creative team, Borrowed Light is a truly exceptional collaboration.

Borrowed Light begins in silence and semi-darkness. A single female dancer moves in a shaft of light. Slowly the stage space lightens a little and, dimly in the background, we can make out seven other dancers and eight singers. The solo dancer’s expansive arm movements seem to be calling the others into the performance. She begins to clap, her movement gets faster, and she adds some stamping movements. Slowly she is joined by the other dancers and singers and the performance moves forward.

Opening sequence of Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Looking back after the performance has finished, it seems clear that this opening section sets the scene for the rest of the performance. Light and dark change places frequently, slow and fast movements alternate, clapping and stamping feature at various times, and choreographically the work focuses on very loose swinging arms; fluid upper bodies; and wide, strong steps. Dancers and singers come and go as the centre of attention but are equal partners in the work.

Two sections stood out for me: a solo danced to a rendition of that well-known Shaker song Simple gifts, and a much wilder section danced by three couples to The great wheel is turning round. The solo to Simple gifts, began and finished in silence and throughout the solo the dancer scarcely moved within the stage space. But the expressive power of her movement, especially the detailed placing of the hands and fingers in the air and on the body, was exceptional. As for The great wheel, it began quite calmly with a spread-out circle of dancers. A smaller circle of singers positioned inside the large circle turned slowly as the singing progressed. But gradually the movement gathered momentum and the circle of dancers became tighter and closed in on itself. A sense of euphoria developed in the choreography and ultimately trance-like behaviour became apparent as some dancers fell to the ground. It was heart-stopping dancing and singing!

But of course there were many other sections that generated different emotions—the ecstasy of the dancers performing to Virgins clothed in a fresh white garment, or the seriousness of movement and song in I will comfort them that mourn, for example. In fact every moment of Borrowed Light was astonishing in its own way.

Ecstatic dancing in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Costumes by Erika Turunen were mostly black but had exquisite detail and a touch of blue-grey colour, differently embedded into the costumes according to gender and role. They were masterly too in the way they played with texture and different fabrics and, in the case of the dancers, in the way they moved so beautifully.

Costumes for the female dancers in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The set by Mikki Kunttu (who also designed the lighting) used the barn structure of the Ted Shawn Theatre in which the show was performed as a backdrop. Onstage there was a series of black risers. They functioned both as a platform for performance on various occasions and also as a resting place for performers when not singing or dancing. What was also quite distinctive about Borrowed Light was the way in which the artists interacted. There was no real separation between singers and dancers, an aspect of the work that set out to highlight the Shaker attitude to community.

Singers and dancers in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Borrowed Light was a truly masterful show. Each individual part was moving, or exciting, or dramatic, or religiously fanatical even. But the whole was coherent and so beautifully and unusually structured. I watched it twice but wish I could have watched it many more times, except that it was only available for a short period!

Michelle Potter, 24 August 2020

Featured image: Maria Nurmela and Tero Saarinen in a moment from Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

NOTE: The title Borrowed Light comes from ‘the architectural practice, common for the Shakers, of building windows into interior rooms, thus maximising dayllght and productivity.’

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from The Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The Royal Danish Ballet. Jacob’s Pillow Virtual Festival 2020

The Royal Danish Ballet has had a close relationship with Jacob’s Pillow, that beautiful dance venue in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, since the 1950s. Ted Shawn, founder of the Pillow, was even given a knighthood by the King of Denmark in 1957 for initiating the cultural exchange that brought the Danes to the attention of an American dance audience.

Most recently the company, presently led by Nikolaj Hübbe, performed at the Pillow in 2018. Highlights from that 2018 program have just been streamed by Jacob’s Pillow as they, like all of us around the world, attempt to manage a situation in which live performance is pretty much impossible. The streamed program consisted of the pas de sept from A Folk Tale, the pas de deux from Act II of La Sylphide, the pas de deux from Act I of Kermesse in Bruges, the pas de deux from Act II of Giselle, and the pas de six and tarantella from Napoli. With the exception of Giselle, all had choreography by August Bournonville, whose unique style has become synonymous with the Royal Danish Ballet (although of course these days the company dances the choreography of many others).

This program was danced without scenery, which put the focus firmly on the choreography, and it enabled us, I think, to look beyond the complexity of those incredible beaten steps and the beautiful ballon that has always seemed to be the cornerstone of the Bournonville technique. Not that those particular features, and the complexity of the combinations of steps, was unclear, but other aspects of the technique became more apparent (at least to me). I was moved especially by the use of the upper body, the epaulement and the incline of the head; by the simplicity of some of the steps that provided a contrast to the more complex ones; and by the use of academic positions of the arms—constant use of bras bas, and third position captured my attention in particular.

I loved too the interactions between the dancers when they weren’t dancing. At times they were casual onlookers, at others they applauded their colleagues efforts, or they showed them off to the audience. The dance became a regular human activity rather than an eisteddfod-like showcase.

Royal Danish Ballet in the Tarantella from Napoli, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

While Napoli was the highlight as the closing work, and it was danced with strength, joy and vibrancy, I admired in particular the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Andreas Kaas had great presence on stage and an exceptional ability to connect with his partner, Ida Praetorius on this occasion. They gave the pas de deux a real storyline. But that pas de deux also demonstrated how duets from Bournonville often involve a particular structure in which the partners often dance side by side, sometimes in unison, sometimes executing the same steps next to each other but as a kind of mirror image. There are fewer high lifts as a result (although, of course, they are not missing).

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from The Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The one jarring issue for me occurred in the pas de deux from La Sylphide danced by Amy Watson and Marcin Kupinski—nothing to do with the performance itself but with the shirt Kupinski wore. It seemed to be made of very light material and every time he jumped (which was often) it moved up and down to the extent that I kept thinking he was lifting his shoulders and destroying the line of his body. He wasn’t and his performance in Napoli showed his physical composure. But in La Sylphide that shirt made it seem as if he wasn’t in control.

Ida Praetorius, Marcin Kupinski and Kizzy Matiakis in Napoli, Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The one non-Bournonville work, the Act II pas de deux from Giselle, seemed a little lack-lustre to me. Perhaps it did need something else—if not some scenery then the presence of Myrthe. I did admire, however, the way J’aime Crandall used her arms with so much expression.

But shirts and lack-lustre aside, what a wonderful hour of dancing. And follow this link for an excerpt from A Folk Tale courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive.

Michelle Potter, 1 August 2020

Featured image: Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Afterthought (from an Australian perspective): Given the Australian connections in the Danish Royal Family, perhaps we need to persuade the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) to make an effort to partner with the Royal Danish Ballet in QPAC’s very successful International Series. The Series has so far seen American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, La Scala Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and others, come to Brisbane for a summer season. The Royal Danish Ballet would be a magnificent addition.

La Meri in costume for Goyesca dance

La Meri

My attention was first drawn to La Meri, an American dancer who specialised in ethnic dance from around the world, by my teacher Valrene Tweedie. When La Meri visited Australia and New Zealand in 1936, Tweedie had been inspired by her performances and mentioned them in an oral history interview I recorded for the National Library in 1988. Later, when I was acquiring the Papers of Moya Beaver also for the National Library’s dance collection, I came across the image that is featured on this post. So, clearly another Australian dancer from the 1930s was inspired by La Meri —inspired enough to seek out and keep a photograph of her.

Jacob’s Pillow has just released a podcast using material from its archive in which we can listen to La Meri talking briefly about her career and her vision for ethnic dance. She also mentions the origins of her name and its relationship to her birth name of Russell Meriwether Hughes. Here is a link to the podcast, which includes briefly the voice of Ted Shawn, also drawn from the Pillow’s archive.

Now I am looking forward to reading Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter’s book, La Meri and her life in dance, published in October 2019.

Michelle Potter 23 March 2020

Featured image: La Meri in Goyesca dance. Papers of Moya Beaver, National Library of Australia. MS 9803. (Detail only for the header image; full image below).

Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Dance diary. October 2019

  • Ten years ago …

This website is now ten years old. While I initially went it alone, Jennifer Shennan from New Zealand joined me as contributor in 2014. Between us we have written 650 reviews, news items, and articles since the site went live in 2009.

My first post was really just a very small photo diary of an amazing few days I spent in 2008 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a job for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It was the last job I did for the Division and was an initiative of one of the Division’s most generous donors, Anne H. Bass. In those few days in Phnom Penh I helped set up a project to interview dancers who had survived the Pol Pot regime and who had gone on to perform, teach and pass on the rich Cambodian dance heritage. I sat in as an observer for the first two interviews, one with Em Theay, the other with Soth Sam On.

The full project, the Khmer Dance Project, was completed a few years ago and several of the interviews are now available online (with English subtitles as the interviews were conducted in the Khmer language). Here is a link to the online version of the very first interview, that with Em Theay, which was conducted on the terrace in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

I kept a diary of daily events during the short time I was there, largely so I could report back to the donor in New York. Looking back over what I wrote, the diary entries focused mostly on technical issues and how to improve the methodology of the project. But I also discovered a non-technical (more or less) incident that I had forgotten. I wrote for day five:

The working part of the day began with a tuk tuk issue when my regular tuk tuk man was not at the entrance to the hotel. I eventually got to Bophana [an audio-visual centre in Phnom Penh] but had to ask Pen [Hun Pen, the interviewer for the project] to work out whether this other guy was prepared to stay with us for half a day. Yes and no. Eventually no. Pen found someone else. I went to the interview location [the home of Soth Sam On] in the car with the crew. Pen, Pen’s boyfriend and Suppya [Suppya Nut, member of the project team] took the tuk tuk. The car got lost and the driver (the translator) took great pleasure in pointing out to me a rat eating at the garbage in one of the streets we went down.

The whole experience, despite the odd rat, was an amazing one and I returned to Cambodia on a private visit several months later when I visited the temples in Siem Reap. The featured image on this post is from that visit.

  • Adelaide Festival 2020

Next year’s Adelaide Festival has some interesting dance events. I am especially looking forward to Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois grandes fugues, a triple bill from three choreographers whose contemporary dance works I have always enjoyed—Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and Maguy Marin.* All three have exceptionally individualistic choreographic styles and for this production have created separate works to the same musical composition—the 1825 Grosse Fugue by Beethoven. Judith Mackrell, writing in The Guardian in London, calls the show ‘one of the most exhilarating, uncompromising evenings of dance I’ve seen in ages.’

Scene from Lucinda Child’s work for Trois grandes fugues. Photo: © Bernard Stofleth

Then, having recently interviewed Lloyd Newson for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, I am looking forward to his revival of Enter Achilles. In addition, Australian Dance Theatre will be performing in a production of Mozart’s Requiem as directed by Romeo Castellucci.

For more information on the Adelaide Festival 2020, follow this link to the Festival website. There you can read more about the items mentioned above, as well as other dance works being performed, and can download the full program.

  • Norton Owen and Jacob’s Pillow

I was delighted to discover recently that my friend and colleague in the United States, Norton Owen, was honoured with the award of the prestigious Louis Rachow Distinguished Service Award by the Theatre Library Association in the US. The image and biography below are from the Association’s website.

Norton Owen
Norton Owen, 2016. Photo: © Bill Wright

Norton Owen is a curator, writer, and archivist with more than 45 years of professional experience in dance. He has been associated with Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival since 1976 and has been Director of Preservation since 1990, overseeing the PillowTalks series as well as all activities involving documentation, exhibitions, audience engagement, and archival access. He is the curator of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, an acclaimed online video resource, and host of a new podcast entitled PillowVoices. In 2000, Dance/USA selected him for its Ernie Award, honoring “unsung heroes who have led exemplary lives in dance.” He has also received awards from the Martha Hill Dance Fund, Dance Films Association, and the José Limón Dance Foundation, and he is a past chair of the Dance Heritage Coalition. In recognition of his 40th anniversary at Jacob’s Pillow, the Norton Owen Reading Room was dedicated in his honor.

See also Norton’s advice for visitors to the beautiful venue that is Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts, at this link. I hope to get back there in 2020.

  • In the wings …

As we head further into the eleventh year, watch this website for reviews and/or news of these upcoming November events:

  • Sydney Dance Company’s Bonachela/Obarzanek, which is season two in the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations;
  • Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella from Queensland Ballet on tour in Canberra;
  • Bespoke from Queensland Ballet in Brisbane with new choreography from Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and Loughlan Prior;
  • Loughlan Prior’s Hansel and Gretel from Royal New Zealand Ballet;
  • Stanton Welch’s Sylvia during the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season; and
  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards for 2019.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2019

Featured image: Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: © 2008 Michelle Potter

Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2019

*Links to my reviews of Dance by Childs and Rain by de Keersmaeker go back to 2014 and 2011 respectively. My access to and capacity to embed imagery has changed markedly since then!

Promotional image for QL2's Belong, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Dance diary. October 2018

  • Belong. QL2’s Chaos Project for 2018

Every year Canberra’s young dancers audition for the Chaos Project staged by QL2. The umbrella name suggests the chaotic situation with which the project begins—in 2018 there were 45 young dancers, boys and girls, aged from eight upwards. But of course by the time the show hits the stage the chaos is gone and, despite the age and experience of the dancers, we the audience are always treated to a wonderful evening of youth dance. The 2018 project, called Belong, had sections choreographed by Olivia Fyfe, Jodie Farrugia and Luke Fryer with Ruth Osborne adding (with her usual flair) an opening and closing section. The topic for exploration—‘belonging’—generated some interesting choreographic responses including the addiction (and disconnection from others) to smart phones and social media; supporting others in a variety of ways; bullying; and other similar matters affecting young people. Dance for the times!

  • Liz Lea and RED

Liz Lea will present her truly exceptional work RED in Liverpool, England, in November as part of the LEAP Festival. It will have a one-off performance on 7 November at 6pm at the Warehouse Studio Theatre, Hope University Creative Campus. RED premiered in Canberra earlier this year. Follow this link for my review of the premiere performance.

Liz Lea in a study for RED, 2018
Liz Lea in a study for RED, 2018

  • Sydney Dance Company in 2019

Sydney Dance Company has announced its season program for 2019, which will celebrate what is the company’s 50th anniversary. Season choreography will be by Rafael Bonachela, Gabrielle Nankivell, Melanie Lane and Gideon Obarzanek. Full details at this link.

While each of the three programs that will take place over 2019 promises something unusual, it will definitely be fascinating to see what Obarzanek does with a work called Us 50 in which, in the spirit of the anniversary, he will use 50 dancers drawn from former and current company dancers, along with members of the community.

Former and current dancers from Sydney Dance Company: (left to right) Kip Gamblin, Linda Ridgeway, Rafael Bonachela, Sheree Zellner (da Costa), Lea Francis and Bradley Chatfield. Photo: © Pedro Greig

  • Oral history: Ariette Taylor

My most recent oral history interview for the National Library was with Ariette Taylor, whose contribution to the work of Australian Dance Theatre during the directorship of Jonathan Taylor has probably not been fully explored to date. In addition to a discussion of her work in Adelaide, the interview includes Taylor’s background as a dancer in Holland and with Ballet Rambert, and her work as a theatre director after the Taylor family moved from Adelaide to Melbourne.

  • Remi Wortmeyer

As part of my research for the interview with Ariette Taylor I was searching for information about Mascha ter Weeme, who directed Ballet der Lage Landen, which Taylor joined in Amsterdam in 1957. I accidentally came across some news about Remi Wortmeyer, former dancer with the Australian Ballet and now principal with the Dutch National Ballet. This is old news (from 2016) but I had not come across it before so am posting it here in case any of my readers have also not heard it.

Wortmeyer was, in 2016, the recipient of the beautifully named Mr Expressivity Award at the international ballet festival, Dance Open, in St Petersburg. The trophy, I understand, replicates the lower leg of Anna Pavlova!

Wortmeyer’s website is at this link and the images above are from this site.

  • Jacob’s Pillow (again)

The latest post from Jacob’s Pillow is a series of video clips with the links between the clips centring on black costuming. There is a clip of David Hallberg dancing Nacho Duato’s solo Kaburias, which makes me think back to that wonderful piece, Por vos muero, which was at one stage in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet but not seen for a number of years now. For my New Zealand readers there is a short clip of an early piece by Black Grace, Minoi, seen at the Pillow in 2004. Then there is a mesmerising clip from Un ballo, a work choreographed by Françoise Adret,with perhaps a nod to Duato, for Lyon Opera Ballet. Lots more. Check out the Pillow’s dance interactive site .

  • Meryl Tankard’s Two Feet

I have long regretted that Meryl Tankard’s solo show Two Feet has never been revived. Well news just in from the Adelaide Festival 2019 is that Tankard is reviving the work for next year’s festival. It will feature the remarkable Natalia Osipova. I imagine tickets will fly out the door!

  • Press for October 2018

‘Bravissimo bringing ballet gala to town.’ Preview of World Superstars of Ballet Gala, Bravissimo Productions. The Canberra Times, 1 October 2018, p. 20. Online version

‘Uneven but often impressive show.’ Review of Happiness is …, Canberra Dance Theatre. The Canberra Times, 16 October 2018, p. 20. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2018

Featured image: Promotional image for QL2’s Belong, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Promotional image for QL2's Belong, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Dance diary. September 2018

  • What’s coming in 2019

Both the Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet have announced their 2019 season programs and details can be found on their respective websites: The Australian Ballet; Queensland Ballet. Both companies have an exciting range of works to tempt us in 2019. I am especially looking forward to Dangerous Liaisons, a new work by Liam Scarlett for Queensland Ballet based on a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and to The Happy Prince, a new work by Graeme Murphy for the Australian Ballet.—two exceptional choreographers who take us to places we are least expecting.

  • And on the subject of …

…Liam Scarlett, Queensland Ballet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Queensland Ballet production of Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream opens in Melbourne shortly. If you live in Melbourne don’t miss it. It’s spectacularly good.

Yanela Pinera as Titania, Queensland Ballet 2016
Yanela Piñera as Titania in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

Here are two reviews, one from New Zealand and one from Australia (It’s a co-production). From New Zealand check this link. From Australia check this link.

  • From New Zealand: a new book

Sir Jon Trimmer, the extraordinary New Zealand dancer, now approaching 80 and still performing, is the subject of a new book. The book was reviewed by Jennifer Shennan for DANZ. Here is a link to that review.

Why Dance? is available to purchase online at this link. RRP: NZD34

Royal New Zealand Ballet has also announced its 2019 program and appears to have an interesting year ahead. Loughlan Prior’s Hansel and Gretel is something to look forward to I suspect. Details at this link.

  • The Stars of World Ballet Gala

I have to admit that my heart sank, momentarily, when I heard that Canberra was to get a gala of world stars of ballet. Recent and ongoing visits by Russian ballet companies, with star dancers advertised, have left me unamused to say the least as the standard of dancing has been really poor, in my opinion. But a Canberra-only gala set for 2 & 3 October appears to be something quite different. A preview story I wrote for The Canberra Times is not due for print publication until 1 October, so doesn’t appear in the ‘Press’ section at the end of this September post. But the article has already appeared online at this link. The story was to have the image of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, which appears below, but The Canberra Times had an unfortunate technical issue with reproducing it and was forced to choose another from its archive. Such a shame as the one finally used does no justice to Kondo and Guo. Nevertheless, it will be a treat to see the pair perform in this gala along with dancers from America, Cuba, and Italy. My review of the show will appear in a few days.

Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Photo Jeff Busby
Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © Jeff Busby
  • Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive

It has been a while since I have mentioned Jacob’s Pillow in a post, but those who have been following my writing for a while will know that the Pillow holds a special place in my heart. I have just received a  link to a collection of filmed excerpts from the Jacob’s Pillow archive, which I would like to share. There is something for everyone to be found. Here is the link.

And I continue to be amazed at what one sees if one looks up in the reading room at Jacob’s Pillow, and by the beauty of the site in Becket, Massachusetts.

  • Jonathan Taylor: an oral history

In September I had the pleasure of talking to Jonathan Taylor, dancer, choreographer and director, and former artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, for the National Library of Australia’s oral history project. Taylor was interviewed for the Library back in 1991 by Shirley McKechnie. It was time to do an update, which added a little more about Taylor’s work with ADT and continued with stories from his post-ADT life. More details when the interview appears on the Library catalogue.

  • Press for September 2018

‘Ballet school showcases rising stars.’ Preview of Showcase 2018 from the Australian Ballet School. The Canberra Times, 18 September 2018, p. 19. Online version 

‘Demanding double-act.’ Review of Cockfight (Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson). The Canberra Times, 28 September 2018, p. 34. Online version

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in 'Cockfight'
Gavin Webber (foreground) and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo: © Darcy Grant

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Hero image for Queensland Ballet’s 2019 season.