Tributes from Michelle Potter and Jennifer Shennan
From Michelle: It is with immense sadness that I pass on the news that esteemed dance writer, Joan Acocella, has died in New York City aged 78. She was one of the best dance writers I have come across. Why? Her writing style was always eloquent, elegant and engaging. Her research for her writing seemed to know no bounds. And her way of thinking about dance was profoundly different from most dance writers.
In the introduction to her book, Twenty-eight artists and two saints, a collection of essays written initially for other printed sources (largely but not exclusively for The New Yorker), she explains her point of view in relation to the essays included in the book. Her approach addresses what she calls ‘the pain that came with the art-making, interfering with it, and how the artist dealt with this’ rather than what she sees as a common belief that artists endure ‘a miserable childhood and then, in their adult work, to weave that straw into gold’.1
Her 1993 publication Mark Morris also has a beautiful slant on the idea of biography. In her Author’s Note that precedes the biography itself she writes:
My goal was to provide an account of [Morris’] life and a guide to his work, but what I wanted most was to give a portrait of his imagination—an idea of how he thinks, or how he thinks the thoughts that lead to his dances.2
Elsewhere on this site I have written about Mark Morris with the words:
Acocella knew Morris’ background, sexual, emotional, family and otherwise, but didn’t dwell on it as such. Instead she showed us so clearly how that background could give us an insight into his works. I especially enjoyed her chapter on Morris’ time in Brussels. True, she mentioned the dramas, but also the successes so that it became a balanced account of that time. She also set it within a context of European approaches to viewing dance and contrasted these approaches with those she thought were more typical of American thoughts. Her biography of Morris is so worth reading.
Then there is her fabulous editing of Nijinsky’s diaries in which she gives us the real thing, not an expurgated version as did Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.
But I have one personal memory that has always stayed, and always will stay with me. While working in New York I was giving a media introduction to a New York Public Library Dance Division exhibition INVENTION. Merce Cunningham and collaborators. I was about to use a quote from an article by Acocella on the Cunningham production Split Sides. As I looked up and out to the audience, there was Joan Acocella smiling beatifically as her name was mentioned and somehow seeming to stand out from the others in the auditorium. A shining moment and a special memory of an exceptional lover of dance.
From Jennifer: In 2000 Wellington’s International Festival of the Arts proposed an Arts Writing initiative in which the British High Commission brought out Michael Billington, long-time theatre critic for The Guardian, and Fulbright New Zealand brought Joan Acocella, dance critic from New York.
(At first the invitation had gone Deborah Jowitt but, as the deadline for her book on Antony Tudor was approaching, she declined. Jenny Gill of Fulbright asked me to suggest an alternative. I had met Joan Acocella in 1980s while studying in New York and many of us were delighted when she accepted the invitation).
I requested that Joan first be taken to Dunedin where RNZBallet were performing a season including halo by Douglas Wright, and Mark Morris’ Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, and her resulting review was full of interest. Then in Wellington Joan conducted a weekend dance-writing workshop—some dozen of us attended NDT’s Mozart program, wrote a review overnight, delivered those to Joan at her hotel before breakfast then met mid-morning to hear her comments on our various reviews. It was a fascinating experience and I stlll use my notes from that weekend.
I also arranged for Joan to give a lecture at NZSchool of Dance where she spoke about Nijinksy. (Joan’s edition of Nijinsky’s Diary reinstates all that his wife Romola had omitted from her early publication of it. Her biography of Mark Morris is also an insightful study of an iconoclastic artist).
In the years of Joan’s sparkling dance and literature writings for the NY Review of Books, and for The New Yorker, there are many classic pieces, but her trip with Baryshnikov on his first return to Riga is probably the most indelibly etched of them all.
A very great dance writer indeed. It was a privilege to have known and worked with her.
Joan Acocella: born San Francisco, 13 April 1945; died New York City, 7 January 2024
Michelle Potter and Jennifer Shennan, 11 January 2024
Featured Image: Joan Acocella photographed in New York. Photo from The New York Review of Books.
1. Twenty-eight artists and two saints (New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House) 2007), p. xiii. Not all the subjects in this book are dance artists but those who are include Lucia Joyce, Vaslav Nijinsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins, Suzanne Farrell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp.
2. Mark Morris (New York: Farrer Straus Giroux, 1993), unpaginated.
This is a long-awaited season since the Company’s program, Venus Rising, had to be cancelled due to the Covid situation earlier this year. That had offered an interesting quartet of works, which we could hope to still see at some future date.
The Sleeping Beauty is a major undertaking for any ballet company, demanding high technical skills from a large cast of soloists. Those we saw perform on opening night were all equal to the challenges and danced with much aplomb, carried by the quality of the Tchaikovsky composition, a masterpiece of instrumental wonder, with Hamish McKeich conducting Orchestra Wellington. My seat allowed a view into the orchestra pit which was an extra thrill since there’s a whole other ‘ballet’ of tension, movement, drama and passion going on there.
2018 was the bicentenary of the birth of Marius Petipa, choreographer of this and other iconic ballets from 19th century Russia. That has occasioned new biographies as well as re-worked productions of his ballets, with the recent version by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre winning widespread acclaim for its historical aesthetic coupled with contemporary sensibility. (It is worth looking into The New Yorkers of 1 & 8 June 2016 for Joan Acocella’s brilliant appraisal of the Ratmansky production and style, illustrating how a ballet classic can combine the best of old, though that takes both research and vision). Disney’s Maleficent from 2014 offers another take on who is in charge of evil in the world, updating his 1959 animation classic.
It is always the choices of style and setting, design and drama that, dancing aside, carries a production’s conviction in the passage of time from a christening to a 16th birthday to a sleeping spell of 100 years, to a dénouement and a wedding. This production, originally planned by Danielle Rowe, was instead here staged by Artistic Director Patricia Barker, with Clytie Campbell, Laura McQueen Schultz and Nicholas Schultz, and Michael Auer as dramaturg. With five different credits for various aspects of design, they took a generalised fairystory line, concentrating on light and bright pastel colours for the good, to contrast with the dark and shadowy world of evil.
It was a nice touch to have a poetic verse of the storyline projected onto the screen at the beginning of each ‘chapter’ but the design of set and costumes for the Court of the Rose seemed lightweight rather than royal. The courtiers were reserved in personality and confidence, yet overdressed in costume detail, rather than majestic as befits the mighty orchestral score. Only Loughlan Prior as the addled nervous M.C., (whose initial mistake was to leave Carabosse off the guest list, thus causing all the mayhem) brought caricature and comedy to the play, though the courtiers seemed unwilling to respond in character.
The already-long ballet incorporated several groups of small children—page boys and court attendants. Charming as they were, they seemed more reminiscent of The Nutcracker than this classic which has an important story with a moral thrust in the forces of good versus evil. The King and Queen stood stiff and passionless with gestures portraying this or that but little in the way of emotion at their impending tragedy—and the seating of them and their baby directly upstage of all the court action effectively disappeared them from the scene as they sat behind all the dancing that followed.
Each of the good fairies performed their brief variations with technical flair and aplomb—Generosity by Ana Gallardo Lobaina, Honesty by Lara Flannery, Serenity by Caroline Wiley, Joy by Cadence Barrack, Curiosity by Madeleine Graham and Clarity by Katherine Skelton. (It is impressive to note that four different castings of Aurora are planned over the season. Skelton will be one of them and her delicate precision should carry the role well). Sara Garbowski as the Lilac Fairy offered particular warmth in the portrayal of her promise to save the day. My young companions were impressed at the Aurora Borealis lighting effects—‘Hey, that’s where the baby’s name comes from.’ they whispered in delighted recognition.
Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora danced radiantly and with an assured technique. Kirby Selchow as Carabosse took her role with relish, conveying macabre delight in wreaking havoc and trouble. Disguising her sidekick Morfran, Paul Mathews, to attend as one of the four suitors to the Princess Aurora on her 16th birthday was a clever ruse to introduce the dreaded spindle disguised as a black rose.
[Intermission. Some day a production might use the auditorium and foyer to help convey the passage of 100 years? That always seems too long a time for a production to ignore].
In Chapter Three, ‘The Hunt Picnic’ brought a group from a faraway court in Lithuania with a lonely Prince ready for a challenge, so the Lilac Fairy showed him the way to wake the sleeping kingdom. The Prince’s name is Laurynas Vėjalis—whoops, that’s the dancer’s name but I’ll use it for the character too since he was immediately apparent as one and the same. From his first entrance, there was the lyricism, strength, nobility and grace one always hopes for in a Principal dancer. Even while standing still, he conveyed those—then his dancing combined agility and strength with musical cadencing that flooded me with joy. This ability to merge the preparation for, together with delivery of, bravura steps into nonchalant movement, is the true heritage of baroque noble dancing, whence the original fairytale hails.
Vėjalis’ strength and speed of allegro movements of his legs and feet, with a simultaneous bone-creaming adagio quality of arm, head and épaulement movements, all without the slightest suggestion of effort or concentration, is a rare natural talent, in the line of Poul Gnatt, Jon Trimmer, Martin James, Ou Lu, Qi Huan, Kohei Iwamoto, Abigail Boyle, proud legacy of this company. It is good, as always, to see the printed program full of content (the work of Susannah Lees-Jeffries) acknowledging the Company’s previous productions.
In the variations from the guests at the wedding—The White Cat by Leonora Voigtlander, and Puss in Boots by Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson were suitably coquettish, the Bluebirds by Katherine Minor and Kihiro Kusukami in striking flight, Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf by Georgia Baxter and Jack Lennon bringing character to the scene.
So, all told, a big ballet to big music—though with design of both set and costume in the first two acts less authoritative than might have been. The dancing was stronger and more accomplished than the sense of theatre throughout, where the timing of action needed attention—until along came a Prince who changed all that. I’ll aim to catch the last performance of the tour and see if the production has travelled well, which I’m sure it will.
Recent worldwide weather events have seen unprecedented extremes in both directions. As we cool down into autumn in New Zealand, we could be mindful of the northern hemisphere’s rite of spring (loads of daffodils apparently, but still cold and wet). We might all be wondering about the proportion of human responsibility for climate change, and what we, each and together, can do about it. So what’s that got to do with dancing? Well, nothing and everything. It’s a global globe that’s turning and we’re all on it.
Recent remarks locally have stated that the New Zealand dance scene is so isolated from the rest of the world. Poppycock, I say, isolation is a state of mind and everywhere is isolated from somewhere. We are entitled to believe that the centre of the world is wherever we are on the day, and that size has nothing to do with it. But it is at the same time true that you sometimes want to see a dance that is not on in your town. What to do about that?
Read this website for a review of the recent retrospective of Graeme Murphy’s works by the Australian Ballet. Think about the issues involved in such retros, and follow the Comments with interest. This triggers memories of Murphy’s works for RNZBallet over the years (too few in my estimation). Thought-provoking.
Read Joan Acocella’s insightful writings on dance in the New Yorker. Her recent pieces on Arthur Mitchell, Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky give rich commentary on dance in America at its best. Acocella is for me the most lucid dance writer in the English language and I hang on her words. You can catch four articles per month in the New Yorker online, or inherit copies from your kind subscribing friends.
Watch Sky Arts television channel’s current broadcast of the 90 minute programme of Patricia Brown’s work. I’d seen photos of her dancers for years but never watched them in motion. Now I have. Intriguing.
Be glad of Arts Festivals. Both Wellington and Auckland have just ended their seasons, plus Fringes, with a remarkable range of dance events on offer that have brought us great works, still warm and wet, from far afield, as well as new local work with much cause to celebrate. RNZBallet’s The Piano:the ballet (see review below); English National Ballet’s Giselle (s.r.b.); Crystal Pite’s and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit (s.r.b.); Michael Parmenter’s Orpheus; Malia Johnston’s Rushes; and the all time standout for me in Michael Keegan Dolan’s Swan Lake Loch na hEala (already reviewed on this website at this link)
In recent years Auckland has staged a festival in the alternate years to Wellington’s longer-established biennial, and the airlines were happy as folk winged their way north or south. That worked fine. Now however Auckland has made theirs an annual festival, to run concurrently with Wellington’s, and that does not work fine. I was conscious of a number of friends who watched wistfully as I flew to Auckland for English National Ballet’s Giselle. A number of other friends did go north too but, in doing so, missed out on the remarkable Betroffenheit back here in Wellington. I fear that the two festivals going up against each other across the same three weeks (they claim to co-ordinate and share events, but they do not…) will cause over time a weakening of both programs, and confuse the punters. Australia staggers her cities’ festival seasons better than we do, which makes sense, and also keeps the airlines happy.
I had to fly back to Auckland within the same week for the legendary percussion ensemble, From Scratch, headed by Philip Dadson. (I had danced to their Drumwheel in performances at the National Art Gallery in 1979. Now the striking Carol Brown dances to the same work. Interesting contrasts). My daughter was also involved in a collaboration with From Scratch at the breathtaking Te Uru gallery complex in Titirangi, west Auckland, the great Manukau harbour sprawling below the rooftop venue, in the treetops, at sunset … the first site specific performance of the many I have attended that has ever really thrilled me.
Back in Wellington The Flamenco Project, by Isabel Rivera Cuenca from Barcelona, was the Fringe Festival’s triumph, a strong and spirited yet subtly playful offering of the best of southern Spain—with return visits to New Zealand on offer. The fabulous Cuba Dupa street festival, as fringe to the Fringe, just squeezed in before the end of a golden summer. Included was a riveting Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppet show by dhalang Joko Susilo, effortlessly accompanied by the local Gamelan Padhang Moncar. The astonishingly dance-like arm movements of the puppets was a revelation of this dhalang’s expertise.
Withdrawal from Festival mania? Nah, no time for the blues. Within a day a local cinema was screening Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale by Christopher Wheeldon in live telecast. A knockout. The Bernstein Project and Manon are coming hard on its heels. Isolated in New Zealand? If you say so, but I don’t.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just completed the national tour of The Piano: the ballet, which saw seasons in both Wellington and Auckland festivals then to eight? cities nationwide. Following inspiration of Jane Campion’s celebrated film from 1980s, the ballet is choreographed by Jiri Bubenicek, in collaboration with his brother Otto on music and design.
The work was originally commissioned for RNZB by Francesco Ventriglia, and extended into two acts from its beginnings as a one-act for Dortmund Ballet in 2014.
(very interesting to read their online promo of that production. I guess isolation works in a variety of ways)…
Specifically for Ballet Dortmund he [Bubenicek] has arranged his newest creation, inspired by Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film The Piano. He tells the story of a mute woman living in Australia in the 19th century, at the outpost of civilization. In the midst of brutal plantation owners and disenfranchised aborigines she can only express herself through the piano. Together with the film’s Australian director, Jiří and Otto Bubeníček sought the original setting of the film to find out what art can be for people who find themselves in extreme situations—everything.
RNZB’s was a major project that has attracted nationwide accolades for the production, and rightly praising outstanding performances by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, among others in alternate casts. The role of the child was a fabulous opportunity for a juvenile player, making far more dramatic demands than the usual cute child dancer cast in many a ballet you and I have seen. (see theatreview, for links to a number of reviews of the production).
The mise en scene of New Zealand land and seascapes was impressive, monumental even, yet did not overpower the danced story. The music excerpts were sourced from numerous different works by numerous different composers, and some (well, me anyway) found that problematic, sensing an opportunity missed by the Company not to have commissioned a New Zealand composer to produce a through-composed score (such as Gareth Farr? John Psathas? There are also other composers who could have managed it, and the cost would not be astronomical alongside the rights to composers, recording companies and performers that must have been required). If that were in place (and it still could be) the work could tour Europe and show the world we’re the best little ballet company on Earth. As it stands the music does not cumulatively and fully support the shift between the picaresque Act One and the emotional depths of Act Two. Some colleagues found a familiar music excerpt distracting when they heard it, wondering (‘Oh, I know that piece so well … whatever is it?. Oh whoops, he’s fetched an axe … what’s he going to do with it now?’)
The ballet has raised other interesting issues along the way, prominently the depiction of Maori in the choreography. Even though respected Maori choreographer, Moss Paterson, was brought in to oversee that dimension, a raft of patronising Pakeha nevertheless commented that the performance of haka should not be left to ‘European’ dancers, and that Maori dancers should themselves be included in the cast instead. One could reply that the challenge to professional dancers in the theatre is to portray ‘other’ in almost every role they take. They may not particularly identify with a repressed and violent husband, a reluctant or duplicit lover, or specially feel like a Cupid or Tinkerbell, a sylphide, or Te Rauparaha, but that’s their trade and the best of them do it with aplomb … witness Abigail Boyle, witness Paul Mathews (whose internalised haka of fury upon discovering he had been cuckolded crosses all ethnic divides) and witness Luke Cooper, Maori dancer in RNZB.
Depiction of Maori in RNZB repertoire over the years has not happened often. Ihi Frenzy, with Te Matarae I Orehu, back in Matz Skoog’s day as director, was one.
(The real strength of that project was to take company to the marae in Rotorua for an immersion orientation…then to tour both ensembles nationwide. By the end of that tour, RNZB dancers were indistinguishable from Maori at the haka finale). The indelible memory for me however is from Gray Veredon’s Tell me a Tale, (during Harry Haythorne’s directorate) when Warren Douglas played the Maori brother, who warned the Pakeha settler coming ashore that his sister would not be available as a girlfriend, and confirmed that in haka. End of story. We could well see that work again—Jon Trimmer, Kerry-Anne Gilberd and Kim Broad who played the lead roles are all still around and could help Gray Veredon with re-staging. Design by Kristian Fredrikson was one of his best, and the choreography suited our company extremely well.
The choreography of The Piano follows Campion’s film in great and faithful detail, including the spirited caricature of the preacher and local congregation of early settlers. I found it a good idea to watch the film again, in tandem with this ballet—and you couldn’t help but notice that the choreographed portrayal of Maori was immensely more successful than the film’s very peculiar treatment of ‘the natives’ who lay around mostly swathed in blankets and draped in mangrove trees.
Having said that, I also noted that I very much preferred the film’s shape-shifting epilogue to the ballet’s ambiguous ‘ending’. Plays in the theatre have endings. The ballet would be stronger for having one too. Then it could really take Europe by storm. There’s the wero to you.
The death earlier in June of film maker Paul Cox sent me in search of a DVD copy of his film The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The backstory is that Cox heard actor Paul Schofield on British radio reading from Nijinsky’s diaries (cahiers), which were first released in 1936 after having been rearranged and edited dramatically by Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.1 From that moment Cox was smitten and wanted to make a film based on the diaries. The making was a drawn-out experience (it took three years),2 but the film was eventually completed in 2001 and released in 2002. Cox has referred to it as a ‘cinematic poem’: it is certainly far from a documentary in the commonly understood meaning of the term.
Nijinsky began writing down his thoughts as a kind of diary on the morning of his last public performance, which he gave at the Suvretta Hotel in St Moritz on 19 January 1919. He wrote his last entry on 4 March that same year, the day he was to go to Zurich to see the psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, who would decide that he was suffering from incurable schizophrenia and who would advise, among other things, that he be admitted to a sanatorium. There are three exercise books of writing and drawing, with the first two books containing sections of Nijinsky’s own form of dance notation. The fourth notebook contains several letters to family, friends and others. The three diary books are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The fourth book of letters is held in Paris by the Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale.
I found Cox’s film (which I must admit I had never seen before) absolutely mesmerising. It is in many respects a collage of images that flash past us, some of which return hauntingly throughout the film. Sometimes they are photographs of Nijinsky in his well-known roles for the Ballets Russes, such as the image at the top if this post, which shows Nijinsky as Petrushka. Sometimes they are images from nature, with flowing water and birds, in particular a crane, appearing frequently. Cox also plays with light and shade and there are many fleeting, emotive moments where shadows flicker over walls, water, and natural features of the landscape. The images reflect Nijinsky’s words as they are written in the diaries and are spoken as a voice over by Derek Jacobi.
The film begins with a funeral procession, Nijinsky’s funeral. As the coffin and the mourning party move down a pathway we see ‘ghosts’ of Nijinsky hovering in the background and sometimes merging with the funeral procession. They are characters Nijinsky played in the ballets that made him the famous male dancer that he was—the Spirit of the Rose from Le spectre de la rose, the Golden Slave from Scheherazade, the Faune from L’Après-midi d’un faune, and so on. These characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the film, slipping between the other images, always reminding us of Nijinsky’s remarkable dancing career.
The dancing components, like the characters who hover around the funeral procession, are interspersed seemingly randomly between the flow of non-dancing imagery. David McAllister and Vicki Attard appear as the two characters in Le Spectre de la rose, while dancers from Leigh Warren and Dancers take on most of the other dancing roles. I admired Aidan Kane Munn’s ‘War Dance’, which he choreographed as a tormented, quivering solo and danced blank-faced. This was the item Nijinsky chose to dance at Suvretta House: ‘Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.’ It is described by Joan Acocella (following Romola Nijinsky’s description) as ‘a violent solo, presumably improvised’ and analysed by Ramsay Burt in relation to Nijinsky’s thoughts on war and peace.3 I also especially admired Csaba Buday’s performance as the Faune in a version of L’Après-midi d’un faune choreographed by Alida Chase and set outdoors in a clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. There was an animal-like awareness to Munn’s reactions as the Nymphs passed by, and his closing scene with the veil was gentle yet blatantly sexual.
There is a kind of narrative component to anchor the imagery and dancing. We meet Romola and her parents and the various doctors who examined Nijinsky, for example. But we never hear them speak, although their body language and facial expressions give us clues as to how the story and their thoughts about Nijinsky are unfolding. Their presence forces us to face the reality that is behind the film.
The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a truly beautiful, painterly film. Like John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which Hamburg Ballet performed in Australia in 2012, it is absolutely compelling and arouses so many thoughts about the nature of Nijinsky—the man and the dancer. But, in contrast to the Neumeier work, the Cox film is almost serene in its overall mood, despite some confronting and bloody images relating to Nijinsky’s vegetarianism, and the challenging words and ideas spoken forcefully by Jacobi. That I find the mood serene is is not to suggest, however, that Cox has not presented the drama and the confusion of thought that permeated Nijinsky’s life. It is just felt in a different manner. The film and the dance work complement each other in a very unusual way and, having at last seen the film, I look forward immensely to seeing the Neumeier work again when it is performed by the Australian Ballet later this year.
Michelle Potter, 25 June 2016
Featured image: Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka. Photographer and source unknown
1. Joan Acocella, in her introduction to the unexpurgated edition of the diaries, published in English in 1999 as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, explains in detail how Romola altered the diaries in that first publishing endeavour of 1936. In particular Acocella notes that around 40% of the contents of the diaries was omitted. Acocella’s introduction is, as is all her writing, lucid and informed: Joan Acocella (ed.), The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999).
2. Philip Tyndall describes the development of the film saying that Cox ‘did much of the cinematography himself in addition to the writing, directing, co-producing and editing.’ Philip Tyndall, ‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The culmination of a career.’ In Sense of Cinema. Issue 20, May 2002. Accessed 25 June 2016.
3. Ramsay Burt, ‘Alone in the world. Reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’. In On Stage Alone. Soloists and the modern dance canon, eds Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 2012).