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).
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.’
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 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
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
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 Us50 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.
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 TwoFeet
I have long regretted that Meryl Tankard’s solo show TwoFeet 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
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 Dreamopens in Melbourne shortly. If you live in Melbourne don’t miss it. It’s spectacularly good.
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 alink 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.
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
Around this time of the year I always get a little nostalgic for Jacob’s Pillow. The 2016 Festival is in full swing. Here is a link to the 2016 promo with video clips from the diverse program that is always a feature of the Pillow Festival.
My nostalgia this year was heightened when, while looking for a version of an article I wrote for The Canberra Times back in 2005, I chanced upon the images below and above, taken at the Pillow in 2007, which I have not published during previous bouts of nostalgia.
(l-r) National Historic Landmark sign, cafe, on-site accommodation.
Michelle Potter, 27 June 2016
Featured image: Inside the Archives Reading Room, looking up. Jacob’s Pillow 2007
I finally got round to getting myself a copy of the DVD Never stand still: dancing at Jacob’s Pillow. And I’m so glad I did. What is particularly satisfying about this DVD documentary is that there is no promotion of a particular company or a person and no media hype. It’s simply about dance in its many and varied forms. ‘Dancing is direct and honest,’ says Mark Morris, one of the several illustrious interviewees appearing on Never stand still. And that’s what we get: direct, honest and simply beautiful dance. A few sections particularly stood out for me, although others will have their own favourites I am sure. I especially enjoyed segments featuring Mark Morris and his dancers, perhaps because those works of his I have seen recently have not impressed me to any great extent—Beaux danced by San Francisco Ballet and Pacific from Houston Ballet, both of which I saw earlier this year, left me feeling underwhelmed. Never stand still has some lovely footage from Morris’ Italian Concerto and LoveSong Waltzes and a brief look at a work called Falling Down Stairs, which Morris made in conjunction with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom we also see on the DVD. The excerpts from these works show quite clearly what Morris is best known for, his astonishing musicality. And Morris is a forthright and articulate speaker in his interview segments.
I was also especially taken with Shantala Shivalingappa, a solo Kuchipudi dancer born in Madras and raised in Paris. What an amazingly expressive body she has and how she uses it to her advantage. Every movement fills the space and she seems to linger a little at the high point of each movement before seamlessly continuing to the next.
Segements featuring Suzanne Farrell speaking about her transition from Balanchine ballerina to company director make interesting viewing as do excerpts from Balanchine ballets she has set on her own company. Natalia Magnicaballi, a principal with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, is startlingly good in the lead in Tzigane.
Gideon Obarzanek makes an appearance and there are excerpts from his work I want to dance better at parties performed by Chunky Move. I also loved the all too brief footage from Bournonville’s Napoli courtesy of the Royal Danish Ballet, along with a brief discussion of the Danes making their first appearance in the United States at the Pillow at the invitation of Ted Shawn. Then there’s Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Judith Jamison, tap, vaudeville…so much more.
Interspersed throughout the contemporary footage is rare archival material showing some of the early performances at Jacob’s Pillow along with an underlying narrative about Shawn and the founding of the this renowned festival, an annual event held at Becket, Massachusetts, in the beautiful surroundings of the Berkshire Hills. If you’ve been there it will bring back wonderful memories not just of the variety of dancing on offer, but of that glorious outdoor stage, those barns and the spectacular surrounding countryside. If you have not had the good fortune to be there Never stand still will make you want to pack your bags for 2014.
Never stand still is so worth watching and is available online at the usual places for quite a small amount of money, even with our dollar falling against the greenback. Here is a link to the official trailer.
In April I conducted two more interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive’s Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project. This time, with cameraman John Parker, I recorded interviews with two emerging circus artists currently in their final year of training at the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne.
Josie Wardrope is specialising in hand stands and swinging trapeze—she loves the feeling of flying—and in the group activity of risley. The term ‘risley’ sent me to a dictionary as I was researching for the interview and I discovered it is ‘a circus act in which an acrobat lying on his back juggles barrels or fellow acrobats with his feet’. It is named after a 19th century circus performer, Richard Risley Carlisle. Post-interview, watching Josie in a one-on-one trapeze session with her coach, her words about loving the feeling of flying were made visible. Exhilarating!
Josie Wardrope on swinging trapeze in a performance of CODA, 2011. Photo David Wyatt. Courtesy NICA
Simon Reynolds gave up his childhood dream of an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics after seeing a performance by Cirque du Soleil. Now he aspires to a contract with this company at the end of his training. At NICA he specialises in contortion hand stands, tumbling tight wire and the group act, teeterboard. I have to say he is somewhat outstanding on trampoline as well. Watching him execute a series of mid-air twists and turns as he moved the length of a very long trampoline in a NICA rehearsal space was breathtaking.
Simon Reynolds executes a hand stand in a performance of CODA, 2011. Photo David Wyatt. Courtesy NICA
A typical day for these two young people is long and arduous but neither can think of anything they’d rather be doing. Both are full of praise for those who coach them, who bring to NICA the skills that they have honed in circus companies from around the world, including China, Russia and Argentina. Both are utterly determined to make a career in circus. Both are also in rehearsal for their 2012 mid-year show Lucy and the lost boy and agree that it is the performance side of their training that spurs them on to perfect their technical skills.
My reflections on a visit to Jacob’s Pillow in 2007 elicited a response from Norton Owen, director of preservation at the Pillow. He mentioned, amongst other things, a DVD called Never stand still. It chronicles life at the Pillow and includes material relating to Gideon Obarzanek. The words of the title, ‘Never stand still’, are in fact those of Obarzanek, which he used in an interview for the DVD and which were then taken up and used as the title. Here is a promotional clip for the DVD.
In April I had the huge pleasure of recording an interview with Gailene Stock, currently director of the Royal Ballet School, London. I was inspired to suggest that an interview with Stock be made for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection after visiting her in London last year to talk to her about her recollections of working with designer Kristian Fredrikson. There was such a positive work ethic at the Royal Ballet School that I felt there had to be the hand of a strong and committed person behind it all. And there is—a director who cares deeply about what she is doing. And of course Stock had an impressive career in Australia as a performer, teacher and director before taking up her current position in London. Here is the link to the National Library’s catalogue record, although a summary of the interview is not yet available. [Update: The full interview is now available online. Follow this link]
In 2007, during time spent working in the United States, I had the pleasure of being invited to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival to sit on a panel with Gideon Obarzanek, whose company Chunky Move was showing his very popular I want to dance better at parties at the Pillow that year. You can just see us (left to right: the presenter, Obarzanek and myself)) in the background over the heads of the audience, a good sized one and one that was definitely interested in the state of dance on the other side of the world.
The session was part of the Pillow’s ‘Pillow Talk’ series held regularly during the Festival on the deck space of the beautiful red barn known as Blake’s Barn. The 18th century barn, seen in the image below, was a gift to the Pillow from the American dancer and choreographer Marge Champion and named in memory of her son Blake. It was moved from its former location in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the 1990s.
Blake’s Barn is just one of the lovely buildings on the Pillow site in the stunning countryside of the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts. The Doris Duke Studio Theatre and part of the outdoor area are pictured below.
I have been reminded of the occasion of the Pillow Talk, and of the Pillow itself, several times recently while watching (from afar) the program for 2012 take shape. This year Australia is represented by the Brisbane-based circus arts ensemble, Circa, and by Stanton Welch. A brand new work from Welch will be presented by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.
The Pillow has extensive dance archives, also housed in Blake’s Barn, and the section of its website called ‘Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive’ is a model for making archival film clips accessible to all. Many hours can be spent watching these little snippets of dance. Here are links to two, vastly different in style and indicative of the broad approach of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival: the irrepressible Twyla Tharp in a community-style undertaking in 2001; and Cynthia Gregory, with her beautifully expressive port de bras—such a sweep through space—in a re-creation in 1982 of a work by Ruth St Denis. The still images at the end of each clip are often outstanding shots too.
Back in May of this year I was lucky enough to see the exhibition of works by photographer E. O. Hoppé at the National Portrait Gallery in London. My post relating to that show concerned portraits of Margot Fonteyn and Olga Spessivtseva. The National Portrait Gallery’s show, Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street, closed shortly after I’d written that post but images of American dancer Ted Shawn, which were part of the Portrait Gallery show, have continued to resonate in my mind ever since.
One, taken in 1922, is a head and shoulders portrait of Shawn in Tillers of the Soil, a stylised dance he created in which he and his wife, the dancer Ruth St Denis, represented an ancient Egyptian couple tilling the soil. The portrait of Shawn is a bold one. And Shawn was a strong, athletic man whose contribution to world dance included the founding of a dance centre in the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts where he trained a group of male dancers, young college athletes who worked on the farm during the morning and trained in the barn during the afternoons. This centre is still used for dance and is the home of the famous Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Shawn also brought his distinctive brand of dance to Australia in 1947 at the invitation of an enterprising woman in Perth, Ida Beeby, director of the Patch Theatre Guild and Dance School. Shawn gave a series of lectures and several solo programs of dance in Perth. His repertoire was eclectic and uncompromisingly his own. It included dances of American Indian origin, a Japanese sword dance, some Flamenco dances, and an American cowboy number ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ From Perth he took a side trip to Arnhem Land and entertained indigenous dancers at Delissaville, who in fact had come to entertain him, with his rendition of a whirling dervish dance. After Perth he moved on to perform his solo shows in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Like most artists who visited Australia in the first decades of the twentieth century, Shawn was not averse to making predictions about the future of Australian dance. He wrote regarding Perth:
‘Perth, due to its unique isolation, is ideally the place where a new dance form, growing out of this continent, using the forms of other countries and of the past as a sort of cultural “humus,” can be born, nourished until its integrity is fully established, and then ray out to the rest of Australia and the world’.
Shawn’s visit to Australia has scarcely been examined in this country. A small collection of programs from his Perth seasons is part of the ephemera collection of the National Library of Australia. But Edward Pask in Ballet in Australia. The second act, 1940–1980, the only survey we currently have of Australian dance covering the period of Shawn’s Australian interlude, makes no mention of the visit. I believe, however, there may be archival film footage of his Australian visit in the Jacob’s Pillow Archive at Becket, Massachusetts.