Dance diary. December 2023

  • Li Cunxin’s farewell

Li Cunxin’s farewell as artistic director of Queensland Ballet was celebrated in a gala show over three performances on 12 and 13 December. Below is a tribute to Li from a range of people who worked with him, along with some terrific photos and footage from the decade of his directorship, and earlier. So worth a look!

See more about Li and his incredible input into the growth of Queensland Ballet at this link.

  • Leanne Benjamin and that outback photograph by Jason Bell

Early in her autobiography, Built for ballet, Leanne Benjamin talks about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the photo taken of her in outback Australia, which I have used on this website on occasions and which (not surprisingly) always generates comments of one kind or another.

Leanne Benjamin who describes this image with the words ‘flying across the outback in my red chiffon.’ Photo: © Jason Bell, 2006

Benjamin was in Australia in December 2006 as a participant in Advance 100 Leading Global Australians Summit, which she says brought together ‘a diverse group of 100 of the best international  minds in business, science, education, research and the arts’. A photo shoot with English photographer Jason Bell and his team, unrelated to Advance 100, followed. It was specifically for a Royal Ballet series called A World Stage in which artists were shown in images, and sometimes on brief film footage, reflecting their country of origin. Benjamin calls it ‘an advertising campaign … which emphasised the international character of the Royal Ballet, and the Opera House where it has its home.’ Her costume, which she describes as ‘a Chanel lipstick-red dress with a skirt that would flash out behind me as I moved, and catch the breeze if we were lucky enough to get one in forty-degree heat’, was made in London by the costume department of the Royal Opera House.

‘Jason’s idea,’ Benjamin writes, ‘was to go for the centre of the continent, where even the colour of the earth tells you that you are in Australia. We’d hoped to shoot in front of Uluru, the country’s most famous landmark, but we couldn’t get permission to film there. The previous day, the team had been to the iconic domed rocks of Kata Tjuta and I’d had a terrific time, going through my paces on a flat floor, surrounded by looming boulders. It was as if someone had built a perfect set for a shoot.

The next day—the day we actually got the photograph Jason had been dreaming of—the terrain was much rougher, and the weather more overcast. To my surprise, the team had organised for a local ‘truckie’ to drive an authentic Australian road train slowly back and forth behind the shoot for a few hours. ….. This was not a stunt photograph, it was me, launching myself into the sky, in touch with the red, red earth of my beloved country.’

Who can forget that image?

Quotes above are from Benjamin’s book Built for ballet. An autobiography (Melbourne: Melbourne Books, 2021) pp. 21–22.

  • Oral history interview with James Batchelor

My final National Library oral history interview for 2023 was with James Batchelor, Canberra-born performer and choreographer who works between Australia and Europe. Amongst the many topics addressed during the interview was a discussion of his choreographic process, including in relation to two of his most recent works—Event and Short cuts to familiar places—and some information about his trip to the sub-Antarctic, including how it came about and the developments that followed the trip. The interview, once processed, will be available for all to hear.

James Batchelor performing in the Mulangarri Grasslands, Canberra, 2021. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski

  • Stephanie Lake. New resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet

Alice Topp’s term as resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet finished at the end of 2023 and the newly appointed holder of the position is Stephanie Lake. Lake will present her first work for the Australian Ballet, Circle Electric, in Sydney in May 2024 and in Melbourne in October 2024. Circle Electric will share the program with Harald Lander’s Études, which explores the intricacies of the classical ballet technique. The potential is certainly there for audiences to experience two vastly different approaches to dance.

Two of Lake’s recent works (for companies other than her own Stephanie Lake Company), are reviewed on this website at these links: Auto Cannibal (2019) and Biography (2022)

  • Promotions at the Australian Ballet

There were a number of promotions announced as the Australian Ballet’s 2023 season came to an end. Seen below in a scene from Don Quixote are newly appointed principals Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli.

In addition, Yuumi Yamada is now a senior artist, Maxim Zenin, Aya Watanabe, Katherine Sonnekus, Misha Barkidjija and Cameron Holmes have been newly appointed as soloists, and Montana Rubin, Evie Ferris, Saranja Crowe, Sara Andrion, Hugo Dumapit, Adam Elmes, Larissa Kiyoto-Ward, and Lilla Harvey have been promoted to the rank of coryphée.

Yuumi Yamada has constantly impressed me over recent years and her promotion is definitely worth celebrating, but congratulations to all who were promoted. I look forward to watching their progress in 2024.

  • Some statistics for 2023

In 2023 this website received 48,959 visits, that is just over 4,000 per month. The top five 2023 posts in terms of number of visits were, in order, ”Talking to Martin James … about teaching’, ‘Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023)’, ‘Strictly Gershwin, Queensland Ballet’, ‘Alice Topp’s Paragon’, and ‘David McAllister. An exciting retirement opportunity’. Of posts relating specifically to dance in New Zealand the top five posts accessed, again in order, were ‘(m)Orpheus. New Zealand Opera and Black Grace’, ‘Lightscapes. Royal New Zealand Ballet’, ‘Myth and Ritual. Orchestra Wellington with Ballet Collective Aotearoa’, ‘Platinum Royal New Zealand Ballet’ and ‘Ballet Noir. Mary-Jane O’Reilly and Company’. Top tags accessed, some used largely it seems for research purposes, were Mary McKendry, The Australian Ballet, Vadim Muntagirov, Graduation Ball, and Bodenwieser Ballet

Unfortunately Google Analytics, from which my data is obtained, has changed its format and the ability to access the number of visits from particular cities is limited to just one week prior to the period of each visit! But of overseas cities, London and New York appear every week.


Michelle Potter, 31 December 2023

Li Cunxin, 2023. Farewell image from Queensland Ballet. Photographer not identified.

Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023)

Digital screening, September–October (filmed on 29 September 2023 during the Melbourne season of Swan Lake)

I am not a huge fan of this latest production of Swan Lake from the Australian Ballet—a version directed by artistic director David Hallberg but based on the 1970s production by Anne Woolliams with dramaturgy and a little extra choreography from Lucas Jervies.

On a positive note, the corps de ballet of 26 swans danced as a group with exceptional precision. Whether they were making and holding a line, a circle, a V-shape as in the opening to Act IV, or any other shape for that matter, their groupings were beautifully precise. And their dancing was in unison to the extent that, for example, they usually managed to lift their legs in arabesque to the same height as each other, and execute other steps with amazing togetherness. The four little swans—Evie Ferris, Jill Ogai, Aya Watanabe and Yuumi Yamada—stood out with regard to this unison and precision. It was pure perfection.

Then there were the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. They were exceptional in design, colour and cut. I especially admired the costumes for the character dances, and the very elegant black and white striped suit worn by von Rothbart in ACT III, befitting a Baron I thought.

But that’s about all the positivity I can muster.

I found the production quite lacking in emotional content. While in his between-acts spiel on this streaming platform Hallberg made much of the partnership between Benedicte Bemet as Odette/Odile and Joseph Caley as Prince Siegfried, and while technically they danced well both separately and together, I could not feel or see any passion, or even affection, between them. And there was certainly no changing emotion visible as the situation between them changed. Ballet is a wordless art but when there is a narrative, as there definitely is in Swan Lake, the story has to be clear and prominent enough in a physical sense for the audience to see and understand the narrative, even if, as in the case of Swan Lake, so many of us have seen it so many times that we have a clear idea already about the storyline. Clarity of narrative and the changing of emotions can be achieved by a simple movement of the head, a lift of the arm that is different from what went before, or something quite simple. But it has to be a physical change that we as the audience can notice and feel, not just a thought in the dancer’s head.

Then I was taken aback by the character dances in Act III. There were three (one each from Spain, Hungary and Italy) rather than the more usual four and they were danced largely without any of the passion that characterises national dancing. Everything seemed to be angled towards a perfect, balletic technique—mostly with the frame of the body held erect and little expression in a physical sense or even through facial expression. Character dances are full of physical expression and theatricality growing from a pride by the characters (as played by the dancers) in a particular heritage.

Perhaps my dislike of this Swan Lake reflects a remark made by Lucas Jervies when speaking to Hallberg and Livinia Nixon in the conversations between acts as part of the streaming. Jervies mentioned that Hallberg asked for the production to be ‘boiled down and refined’, and Hallberg confirmed that this was his aim. The ‘boiling down’ just took everything away. A strong (refined?) focus on technique and little else doesn’t make a theatrical production. At least not for me.

I have a subscription ticket to see this Swan Lake in Sydney towards the end of the season there. Perhaps I will feel differently then?

Michelle Potter, 2 October 2023

Featured image: A moment from Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Kate Longley

Dance diary. May 2022

  • The Johnston Collection. On Kristian Fredrikson

My talk for Melbourne’s Johnston Collection, Kristian Fredrikson. Theatre Designer Extraordinaire, will finally take place on 22 June 2022 just one year later than scheduled. No need, I am sure, to give a reason for its earlier cancellation. I am very much looking forward to presenting this talk, which will include short extracts from some of the film productions for which Fredrikson created designs, including Undercover, which tells the story of the founding of the Berlei undergarment brand.

Further information about the talk is at this link: The Johnston Collection: What’s On.

  • Australian Ballet News

The Australian Ballet has announced a number of changes to its performing and administrative team. In May, at the end of the company’s Sydney season, ten dancers were promoted:

Jill Ogai from Soloist to Senior Artist
Nathan Brook from Soloist to Senior Artist
Imogen Chapman Soloist to Senior Artist
Rina Nemoto from Soloist to Senior Artist
Lucien Xu from Coryphée to Soloist
Mason Lovegrove from Coryphée to Soloist
Luke Marchant from Coryphée to Soloist
Katherine Sonnekus from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
Aya Watanabe from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
George-Murray Nightingale from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée

George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu in Graeme Murphy’s Grand. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Kate Longley

In administrative news, the chairman of the board of the Australian Ballet has announced that Libby Christie, the company’s Executive Director, will step down from the position at the end of 2022, after a tenure of close to ten years.

But the Australian Ballet will also face a difficult time in 2024 when the State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, where the Australian Ballet performs over several months, and which it regards really as its home, will close for three years as part of the redevelopment of the arts precinct. Apparently David Hallberg is busy trying to find an alternative theatre in Melbourne. But then the company faced similar difficulties a few years ago in Sydney when the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House was unavailable as it too went through renovations. It was perhaps less than three years of closure in Sydney but the company survived then and I’m sure it will this time too.

  • And from Queensland Ballet

Queensland Ballet’s Jette Parker Young Artists, along with artistic director Li Cunxin, a group of dancers from the main company, and Christian Tátchev from Queensland Ballet Academy, will head to London any day now. The dancers will perform in the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House from 4-6 June as part of a cultural exchange between Australia and the United Kingdom. They will be taking an exciting program of three works under the title of Southern Lights. Those three works are Perfect Strangers by Jack Lister, associate choreographer with Queensland Ballet and a dancer with Australasian Dance Collective; Fallen by Natalie Weir, Queensland Ballet’s resident choreographer; and Appearance of Colour by Loughlan Prior, resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet.

In addition to the performances, Li will be joined by Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare and dancer Leanne Benjamin for an ‘In Conversation’ session, and Tátchev will conduct open classes for dancers from the Royal Ballet School

  • Not forgetting New Zealand

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has also announced a retirement. Katherine and Joseph Skelton will give their last performance with the company in June. It has been a while since I saw Royal New Zealand Ballet perform live but I have especially strong memories of Joseph Skelton dancing the peasant pas de deux with Bronte Kelly in Giselle in 2016. Both dancers are mentioned in various posts on this website. See Katherine Skelton and Joseph Skelton.

RNZB is filming the pair in the pas de deux from Giselle Act II and the film will be made available on RNZB’s Facebook page on 1 June.

  • Street names in Whitlam (a new-ish Canberra suburb)

There has been discussion at various times about naming streets in Canberra suburbs after people who are thought to be distinguished Australians. There was quite recently discussion about abandoning the process completely with complaints being made that the process was not an inclusive one, and that in particular men outnumbered women (along with several other issues). Well not so long ago I joined Julie Dyson and Lauren Honcope in helping the ACT Government select names of those connected with dance to be used as street names in the new-ish suburb of Whitlam. The suburb was named after former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the decision was to name the streets after figures who had been prominent in the arts (given Whitlam’s strong support of the arts). I looked back at what was eventually chosen (and it was for an initial stage of development of the suburb), and its seems to me that the argument that diversity was lacking is not correct (at least not in this case). The names selected for this stage included men, women, First Nations people, and people known to belong to the LGBTI… community. Some have a lovely ring to them too—Keith Bain Crest, Laurel Martyn View, Arkwookerum Street for example. I’m looking forward to what the next stage will bring.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2022

Featured image: Still from Undercover, Palm Beach Pictures, 1982

Faster. The Australian Ballet … again

15 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

It was a treat to see Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory for a second time. This time I had the pleasure of seeing Vivienne Wong and Kevin Jackson dancing major parts, along with Jill Ogai and Jake Mangakahia, all of whom used their technical expertise to enhance Harbour’s choreography.

I was once again transfixed by the seamless quality of the collaboration and I enjoyed in particular watching the changing coloured light that played over Kelvin Ho’s design—it gently moved from russet-orange to silver to blue—which I hadn’t noticed to the same extent on my first viewing.

This time I was also fascinated by the tiny choreographic details that Harbour used throughout—the changing relationship between the wrist and hand, for example. The wrist demanded that the hand sometimes stretch, sometimes drop, sometimes lift. Every part of the body had a defined role to play in Squander and Glory. What can the body do? Every part of the body is significant.

I hope Squander and Glory remains in the repertoire. It is a work that will continue to reveal, I feel sure, more moments to delight the eye with every new viewing.

Looking at Wayne McGregor’s Infra for the second time I admired the dancing of Cristiano Martino, especially in a solo section where his very fluid body was quite mesmerising, and Dimity Azoury’s work in the final pas de deux (and apologies to her equally admirable partner as I am not sure who he was).

Michelle Potter, 19 April, 2017

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Squander and Glory. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud