Dance diary. August 2022

  • Cranko. The Man and his Choreography. A new book

A new book, Cranko. The Man and his Choreography by Ashley Killar is due to be released in London next month. Killar, who danced extensively with Stuttgart Ballet when John Cranko was the company’s artistic director, presents a detailed and extensively researched analysis of the life and career of Cranko, going right back to his childhood in South Africa. The book will also have an Australian launch in December, coinciding with the production of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet as part of the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season. At present the book can be pre-ordered from Book Depository or from the British publisher at this link. In Australia it will initially be available through Bloch Dance stores.

Read more about the book at this link, where you’ll find some unexpected items, including recipes (and see above an image of Cranko as chef).

  • Douglas Wright’s Gloria

The latest news from CO3, the Perth-based contemporary company led by Raewyn Hill, is that the company will be staging Douglas Wright’s Gloria in September.

Douglas Wright (centre) performing in his Gloria in 1990. Photo: © Patrick Reynolds

Here is what Jennifer Shennan wrote about Gloria in 2004, which she updated for Raewyn Hill just recently:

Gloria—by Douglas Wright & Antonio Vivaldi

To Vivaldi’s exuberant music, Douglas Wright made Gloria, the best dance ever choreographed in New Zealand. It affirms and celebrates life as it is on Earth. Dancers clad in gold silk launch themselves into the air and seem to stay there, flying over each other in twists and plaits, bodies somehow freed from gravity, aiming for the stars, hitting the sun.

Douglas was commissioned by his friend Helen Aldridge to choreograph a work commemorating the life of her daughter, and also his friend, Deirdre Mummery, who had died of an accidental drug overdose.

Helen did not know what might result—a lament? an elegy? commiseration? She could scarcely have imagined the ecstasy and expression of life’s force as these exquisite dancers walk then run, lean then leap, lift then fall, roll then rise, turn then hold, shimmer then fly.

The physical stamina required is phenomenal but not for a moment do we sense any struggle. The choreography is woven of exquisite lines and loops, allowing the dancers to embrace every baroque quaver in the light and shade of Vivaldi’s Gloria. It affirms and celebrates life as it is in Heaven, where Deirdre and Douglas now live.

Written by Jennifer Shennan in 2004, for BEST—a New Zealand compendium [AWA Press 2004]; reworked for Raewyn Hill, August 2022

My review from 1993, when Gloria was staged by Sydney Dance Company along with Graeme Murphy’s Protecting Veil, is at this link. See also the tag Douglas Wright for more about Wright’s work as it appears on this website.

Further information about the CO3 staging is available on the company’s website.

  • News from James Batchelor

Short Cuts to Familiar Places, James Batchelor’s latest work, will receive its world premiere in Düsseldorf, Germany, in October. The work investigates the concept of ‘body lineage’ and, in his media release, Batchelor describes it as exploring ‘the idea of the body as a site of inscription, a morphing map or text that is continuously re-drawn and re-written’.

Batchelor has been researching the background for this work for a year or so now and he has given particular focus to the work of his teacher at Canberra’s QL2, Ruth Osborne, and her connections through her own teacher, Margaret Chapple. Chappie, as she was familiarly known, was a student of and dancer with Gertrud Bodenwieser and, after Bodenwieser’s death, directed (with Keith Bain) the Bodenwieser Dance Centre in Sydney. Batchelor has also worked with, and considered the heritage of others with connections to Bodenwieser including Eileen Kramer and Carol Brown.

James Batchelor in a study for Short Cuts to Familiar Places. Photo: © Morgan Hickinbotham

With luck Short Cuts to Familiar Places will eventually be shown in Australia. Stay tuned.

Production credits (from the media release):
CHOREOGRAPHY, PERFORMANCE James Batchelor DRAMATURGY, PRODUCTION Bek Berger COMPOSITION Morgan Hickinbotham PERFORMANCE Chloe Chignell LIGHT DESIGN Vinny Jones COSTUME DESIGN Juliane König CHOREOGRAPHIC CONSULTATION Ruth Osborne, Eileen Kramer, Carol Brown RESEARCH CONSULTATION Michelle Potter

  • The end of an era?

It was something of a shock to learn that the world renown dance magazine Dancing Times will publish its very last issue next month, September 2022. The London-based magazine with an international reach was established in 1910 when its predecessor, a house magazine of the Cavendish Rooms, was bought by founding Dancing Times editor P. J. S. Richardson. Since then it has had other editors with the present holder of the position being Jonathan Gray. Current production editor of the magazine, Simon Turner, writes:

Sadly, since 2020, the tremendous economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the rapid increase in costs over the past year, means that the magazine is no longer financially viable in its current form.

The news has shocked the international dance world of course and we have to hope that the same fate does not occur with Dance Australia, which already has reduced its schedule from a print version every two months to one every three months.

*********************

But on different although related issue, dance reviews and articles in print outlets in Australia (and elsewhere?), especially those by knowledgeable contributors, seem to be slowly disappearing. Another end to an era? I was struck by a recent notification from the Sydney Opera House of an event due to take place in September called ‘How do you solve a problem like the media?’ Despite the clear allusion in the title to a well-known song and by extension to the arts, this event appears to be focusing on politics, with which I have no issues of course. But the opening remark in the advertisement for the occasion, ‘The media has gone through a huge upheaval in recent decades. Now we’re starting to see the effects …’, applies equally to the arts, and to dance in particular, which scarcely ever gets an informed and in depth mention, even in online outlets associated with newspapers.

  • Liz Lea at the Edinburgh Fringe

As mentioned in the July dance diary, Liz Lea’s RED was set to be part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and RED took the stage from 16-28 August. Read Helen Musa’s review of the Edinburgh show for Canberra City News at this link. And in the light of my comments above re the disappearance of the arts from print outlets, we are lucky in Canberra that City News, which has a weekly print edition as well as an online presence, still sees fit to carry news and reviews about the arts, including dance.

  • Glimpses of Graeme. Another new book

My next book is currently being designed, although a release date is not yet available. Called Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, it consists of a selection of reviews and articles I have written about Murphy and his works. Rather than gathering the pieces together chronologically, as is often the case with such collections, I have arranged them in chapters that reflect themes that I believe characterise Murphy’s oeuvre. More later.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2022

Featured image: The chair Cranko used for rehearsals in Stuttgart. From Ashley Killar’s website regarding his book.

Dance diary. October 2021

  • The Australian Ballet in 2022

The Australian Ballet is returning in 2022 with a program that perhaps more than anything reflects the strong international background of artistic director David Hallberg. One work, John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, is well-known already to Australian ballet audiences but the rest of the offerings are not quite so well-known.

Anna Karenina is familiar to Australian audiences but not in the version that Hallberg has secured. This Anna Karenina has choreography by Yuri Possokhov and has a commissioned score by Ilya Demutsky, which includes a mezzo-soprano singing live on stage. It was meant to be danced by the Australian Ballet in several locations in 2021 but, in the end, it received just a few performances in Adelaide. It is slated to be seen in 2022 in Melbourne and Sydney and I hope that will eventuate. I tried three times to see it this year but three times I had to cancel! I have been a fan of Possokhov’s work since 2013 when I saw his Rite of Spring for San Francisco Ballet. Bring it on.

A work from a several collaborating choreographers, Paul Lightfoot, Sol León, Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite will also be shown in Melbourne and Sydney. With the name Kunstkamer it promises to be an eye-opener. Originally made for Nederlands Dans Theater, notes on that company’s website say:

Inspired by Albertus Seba’s The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (1734), the choreographers use the stage to be their own Kunstkamer that presents NDT as its own multifaceted ‘Company of Curiosities’.

Musically eclectic as well (Beethoven, Bach, Purcell, Britten, Janis Joplin, Joby Talbot and others) eye-opener is perhaps too gentle a word?

Dimity Azoury in a study for Kunstkamer, 2021. The Australian Ballet Season 2022. Photo: © Simon Eeles

Then there is the triple bill for the year, Instruments of Dance, a name that I find somewhat unmoving, or at least uninviting. It will feature a new work by Alice Topp, a 2014 work from Justin Peck called Everywhere We Go, and Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian Tear made in 2016 and featuring an all-male cast. While I am a definite fan of McGregor I have seen Obsidian Tear and to me it is not one of his best works. Here is part of what I wrote about the work as danced by the Royal Ballet in 2018:

The opening work, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, left me a little cold and its choreography seemed stark and emotionless—but then I guess obsidian is a hard substance. Everything seemed to happen suddenly. Lighting cut out rather than faded and movement, while it showed McGregor’s interest in pushing limits, had little that was lyrical.

Royal Ballet artists in 'Obsidian Tear'. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper
Artists of the Royal Ballet in Obsidian Tear. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper

My full review of that Royal Ballet season is at this link.

There are aspects of the season that I have not mentioned here. The full story is on the Australian Ballet’s website. My fingers are crossed that 2022 will be the year we go to the ballet!

  • Wudjang. Not the Past. Bangarra Dance Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company

Bangarra Dance Theatre is joining forces with Sydney Theatre Company to produce a new work by Stephen Page to be shown at the Sydney Festival in January 2022 and then two months later in Adelaide. Page has described it as ‘an epic-scale contemporary corroboree’ and it will be performed by seventeen dancers, four musicians and five actors.

Publicity image for Wudjang. Not the Past. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The narrative for the work is written by Page and Alana Valentine and Page has described the inspiration for that narrative:

In the deep darkness just before dawn, workmen find bones while excavating for a dam. Among the workers is Bilin, a Yugambeh man, who convinces his colleagues to let him keep the ancestral remains. This ancestor is Wudjang, who, along with her young companion spirit, Gurai, longs to be reburied in the proper way. With her young companion spirit, Gurai, she dances and teaches and sings of the past, of the earth, of songlines. With grace and authentic power, a new generation is taught how to listen, learn and carry their ancestral energy into the future. Wudjang: Not the Past follows the journey to honour Wudjang with a traditional resting place on Country.

The production features poetry, spoken story-telling, live music and the choreography of Page. Something to look forward to as we (hopefully) come out of the difficulties of the past two years. 

  • QL2 Dance: Not giving in

Like so many dance organisations, QL2 Dance, Canberra’s much-loved youth dance organisation, has had to cancel so many of its activities over the last several months as a result of the ACT’s covid lockdown. Not giving in is the organisation’s answer to the situation. Watch it below. (Link removed. Video no longer available)

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2021

Featured image: Nathan Brook in a study for Instruments of Dance. The Australian Ballet Season 2022. Photo: © Simon Eeles

Lucette Aldous, AC (1938-2021)

One of Australia’s best known and most admired ballerinas, Lucette Aldous, has died in Perth at the age of 82.

New Zealand-born, Lucette Aldous trained in Brisbane with Phyllis Danaher and then in Sydney at the Scully-Borovansky School where her main teacher was Kathleen Danetree. She was awarded the Frances Scully Scholarship to continue her training overseas and entered the Royal Ballet School in London in 1955.

In 1957 she began her professional career with Ballet Rambert where she danced not only the classics like Giselle and Coppélia and but also early works by Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, Walter Gore, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan. Her time with Rambert also included a 1957 tour to China.

Following her time with Rambert she danced with London Festival Ballet and then with the Royal Ballet (second company). It was while working with the Royal Ballet that she first performed with Rudolf Nureyev, partnering him in Nutcracker during a European tour.

Her partnership with Nureyev blossomed after she returned to Australia in 1970. She joined the Australian Ballet that year and danced the role of Kitri to Nureyev’s Basilio in Don Quixote, jointly directed by Nureyev and Robert Helpmann. The role of Kitri particularly suited Aldous’ vivacious and effervescent personality. She also performed with extraordinary technical accomplishment both on stage and in the film version, which premiered in 1973, when she truly gave Nureyev a ‘run for his money’ —no easy feat. Over her career she did, however, dance the role with others.

Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film, 'Don Quixote', the Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards
Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film production of Don Quixote. The Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards. National Library of Australia

Aldous danced a wide variety of roles while with the Australian Ballet and another milestone in her career occurred in 1975 when Ronald Hynd created the role of Valencienne on her in his production of The Merry Widow. During the 1970s Aldous continued to guest with companies in England, America and Europe and had a featured role with Fernando Bujones in the film The Turning Point.

Kelvin Coe and Lucette Aldous in Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons. The Australian Ballet, 1975. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

After retiring from full-time performing in the mid 1970s Aldous taught at the Australian Ballet School and then in 1982 joined the faculty of the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Edith Cowan University, Perth. She and husband Alan Alder, whom Aldous had married in 1972, also spent a number of months in St Petersburg studying the teaching methods and philosophy behind the Vaganova system of training as espoused by the Kirov ballet school. Aldous has also been an advocate of Boris Kniaseff’s floor barre as a system of training.

After retiring from full-time work at WAAPA, Aldous continued to live in Perth and to coach, adjudicate and teach.

In 1999 Aldous received an honorary doctorate from Edith Cowan University while at the Australian Dance Awards she received the award for Services to Dance in 2001 and Lifetime Achievement in 2009. In the Australia Day Honours List of 2018 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).

Lucette Aldous is survived by her daughter, Floeur Alder.

Lucette Aldous: born Auckland, New Zealand, 26 September 1938; died Perth, Australia, 5 June 2021

Michelle Potter, 6 June 2021

Some resources:
Lucette Aldous was interviewed for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program in 1999. The interview is available online and is full of information about her background as well as containing many fascinating anecdotes about those she worked with during her extensive career. Listen at this link.

Aldous has also featured in a 2001 film by Michelle Mahrer, The Three Ballerinas. She appears along with Marilyn Rowe and Marilyn Jones in the trailer below.

She also appears in Sue Healey’s On View Series. Read a little about it at this link.

Lucette Aldous in a sitll from Sue Healey's short film 'Lucette Aldous'.
Lucette Aldous in stills from Sue Healey’s short film Lucette Aldous

Featured image: Portrait of Lucette Aldous as Kitri in Don Quixote. The Australian Ballet, 1970. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

A New Era. The Australian Ballet in 2021

Ever since the announcement that David Hallberg was to become the new artistic director of the Australian Ballet, there has been speculation about what he might bring to the company. With his extraordinary background across the world, including extended periods as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York and Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, as well as guest seasons with major companies around the world, including an extended position as principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet, it has seemed obvious that he would have much to offer. His contacts, and his wide personal experience, would ensure that he would be able to bring a diverse repertoire of works to the Australian Ballet. The announcement of the Australian Ballet’s season for 2021 shows exactly that.

David Hallberg, 2020. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The season is made up of a gala opening program in Melbourne, two mixed bill programs and three full-length works. Sound familiar? Looking more closely, however, the individual content of each season might be seen as somewhat unexpected. The opening season for Sydney dance goers is New York Dialects. It consists of two works by George Balanchine, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, which show somewhat different aspects of Balanchine’s output; and a newly commissioned work from Pam Tanowitz. Who could not look forward to Balanchine? But I am curious to see what Tanowitz produces as the one work of hers that I have seen (Solo for Russell for a New York City Ballet streaming program) left me cold I have to say.

The other mixed bill has two vastly different works both based on the balletic vocabulary—Petipa’s third act from Raymonda and William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. I had the pleasure once of seeing the full-length Artifact but have never seen the Suite that Forsythe created from the full-length version. I look forward to the Suite and I am sure it will contain all the startling aspects (blackouts, lowering of the front curtain in mid-performance, and so on) that characterise the full production. An interesting choice from Hallberg.

As for the full-length works, we will get to see (I hope, anyway) Anna Karenina with choreography by Yuri Possokhov, whose choreography I admire immensely; John Cranko’s familiar Romeo and Juliet; and Alexei Ratmansky’s revival of the long-lost Harlequinade, originally created by Petipa in 1900.

Robyn Hendricks in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

What has impressed me so far is the way Hallberg speaks about the repertoire for the 2021 season. His words are straightforward and clear but they don’t dumb things down at all. His discussion of the Counterpointe program, for example, he says

The juxtaposition of Raymonda and Artifact Suite shows the evolution of classical ballet. Raymonda adheres to tradition and pageantry; Forsythe took this history and ‘imitated’ it, creating a work that overwhelms both dancers and audience with gestural references given new meaning. These seminal works both counteract and perfectly complement each other.

It has also been interesting rereading his autobiography A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back (New York: Atria Paperback, 2017). Now he is the new artistic director, the sections in his book where he talks about seeking to understand more about the nature of ballet take on a new meaning. During the reread I especially admired his enquiring mind, and his interest in an analytical approach to certain aspects of his career.

Hallberg has good connections already with the Australian Ballet as a result of guesting with the company on various occasions, and from the extended time he spent in Melbourne being treated for injury by the company’s rehabilitation team. He is an exceptional dancer (oh those beats!) and I clearly recall the first time I saw him in 2010 in Kings of the Dance. ‘Hallberg danced with classical perfection,’ I wrote. But despite all the positive signs, he has to prove that he can direct a company successfully. A new era? Fingers crossed.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

Featured Image: Brett Chynoweth in a study for Harlequinade. Photo: © Pierre Toussaint

Barry Kitcher as the Lyrebird in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer

Barry Kitcher (1930–2019)

Barry Kitcher, who has died in Melbourne aged 89, is probably best known for his role as the Male (the Lyrebird) in Robert Helpmann’s 1964 ballet The Display. In an oral history interview recorded for the National Library of Australia in 1994* he recalled what he saw as the highlight of his career—taking a solo curtain call at Covent Garden when the Australian Ballet staged The Display there during its international tour in 1965.

A highlight of my career was taking a curtain call on that incredible stage where the butterfly curtain goes up. There were the two lackeys at Covent Garden, in powdered wigs. They parted the curtain and I took a solo curtain call. Never did I think as a country kid from Victoria that one day I would be taking a curtain call at Covent Garden. Princess Margaret came to the performance and she told me how much she enjoyed the performance. She was fascinated by the mechanism [of the costume] and asked me if I could open the tail, which I did.

Barry Kitcher and Kathleen Gorham in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet 1964
Kathleen Gorham and Barry Kitcher in The Display. The Australian Ballet 1964. Photo: Australian News and Information Service

But Kitcher had an extensive career in Australia and overseas, which encompassed so much more than his performances in The Display, despite the fame that that one role gave him. His introduction to ballet came when, in 1947, aged 17, he saw a performance in Melbourne by the visiting English company, Ballet Rambert. He was inspired, as a result, to take classes with Melbourne teacher Dorothy Gladstone but eventually moved on to study at the Borovansky Academy. There he took evening classes with Xenia Borovansky while working as a clerk with Victorian Railways during the day.

He spoke of his impressions of Xenia Borovansky, again in his National Library oral history interview.

She was very tall, extremely tall—she towered over Boro—and she wore high heel shoes as well. She was so regal and elegant and when she walked into a room it was like a star. She had rather bulbous eyes. You really stopped and looked at Madame Boro as she came in … she was a very impressive lady. Her carriage and her stature were outstanding.

He joined the Borovansky Ballet for the 1950–1951 season when the company reformed after a period in recess. He took on many roles with the Borovansky company over the years, but recalls in particular dancing in Pineapple Poll when it was staged by its choreographer, John Cranko; taking on the role of the Strongman in Le beau Danube after Borovansky’s death; and dancing as one of the three Ivan’s in The Sleeping Princess.

At the end of his first season with the Borovansky Ballet, the company went into recession once more and Kitcher spent time appearing on the Tivoli circuit. He then left Australia in 1956 to try his luck in England, as did so many of his dancing colleagues at the time.

In London he took classes with legendary teacher Anna Northcote and later with Marie Rambert; danced at the London Palladium as a member of the George Carden Dancers, with whom he appeared in a number of shows including Rocking the Town and a Christmas pantomime The Wonderful Lamp; joined Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet and appeared in the The Merry Widow; and danced with London City Ballet.

He returned to the Borovansky Ballet in 1959 and then went on to dance with the Australian Ballet from its opening season in 1962 until 1966.

After leaving the Australian Ballet he joined Hoyts Theatres and trained as a theatre manager working in various Melbourne-based cinemas. Eventually he successfully applied for a position as theatre manager with the newly opened Victorian Arts Centre where he worked for several years.

Portrait of Barry Kitcher

But for all his achievements across many areas, Kitcher was probably most proud of being a member of the Borovansky Ballet. He was responsible for many organisational details associated with the various reunions of former Borovansky dancers, which began in 1993, and throughout his oral history interview he spoke constantly of the artists he worked with, including Borovansky himself as well as Xenia. He loved in particular discussing the nature of the company and the closeness he felt there was between those who worked with it.

My favourite quote from his oral history comes from Kitcher’s recollections of time spent touring in New Zealand, which the Borovansky company did frequently. Speaking of the unofficial concerts the company staged amongst themselves, especially one held in Christchurch at the Theatre Royal, he recalled:

To raise money for our big farewell party in New Zealand (we had a wonderful party) we had a big fete onstage during the afternoon at the Theatre Royal in Christchurch. The stagehands and everybody joined in. Boro contributed a fish that he’d caught—he was a great fisherman, loved fishing. That was his relaxation away from the theatre—fishing and painting. All the principal ladies, Kathy [Gorham] and Peggy [Sager], made cakes and things like that. Oh, we had a wonderful time … It was a great company and, as dear Corrie [Lodders] said, ‘It was a company of family’ … We were very, very lucky to be part of that era.

Listen to this quote.

Barry Kitcher was a kind and thoughtful man. He never forgot me as his interviewer for the National Library’s oral history program and helped me on many occasions when I needed to confirm certain details about the companies he worked with. Vale Barry.

Charles Barry Kitcher, born Cohuna, Victoria, 6 September 1930; died Melbourne, Victoria, 10 December 2019

Michelle Potter, 13 December 2019

Barry Kitcher as the Lyrebird in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer
Featured image: Barry Kitcher as the Male (Lyrebird) in The Display. The Australian Ballet 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer.

* Interview with Barry Kitcher recorded by Michelle Potter for the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Project, August 1994. National Library of Australia, TRC 3102

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Romeo and Juliet. Sarah Lamb as Juliet, Vadim Muntagirov as Romeo. ©ROH, 2015. Photographed by Alice Pennefather

Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet

4 May 2019 (matinee). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

It is always exceptional to see a work by a choreographer who is not the familiar one from one’s previous experiences of that work. Having seen John Cranko’s production of Romeo and Juliet countless times, as performed by the Australian Ballet, along with several versions by other choreographers, the Royal Ballet’s production of Kenneth MacMillan’s version of the Shakespearian tragedy was indeed an exceptional experience. I was lucky too, I think, to have seen Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in the leading roles. While I thought Lamb’s interpretation was a little too child-like, I was fascinated by the changing emotions displayed by Muntagirov. In addition, the partnership between Lamb and Muntagirov was very secure technically and, as a result, MacMillan’s often swirling, curving, diving lifts were realised beautifully.

Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in 'Romeo and Juliet'. The Royal Ballet. © 2015 ROH. Photographer Alice Pennefather

(Above and below) Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet. © 2015 ROH. Photographer Alice Pennefather

The MacMillan version of Romeo and Juliet received its premiere in 1965. It is a gutsy production from the beginning when the market place of the opening scene buzzes with activity and is filled with people who seem so real (and was that a side of a dead cow being carried through the crowd on the way to the market?). The sense of the real continues through to the middle scenes when Mercutio and then Tybalt die from sword wounds and do so in such a dramatically convincing fashion, and on to the end where Romeo’s and Juliet’s death scenes leave us emotionally exhausted.

Then, Nicholas Georgiadis’ sets have little of the romantic to them. The Capulets live in a fortress, as we see when the guests arrive for the Capulet ball. And, as Jann Parry tells us in her program notes, the inclusion of a fortress looks back to the Franco Zeffirelli theatre production, made for the Old Vic in 1960-61, when Zeffirelli had the Capulets live in such a structure as protection from enemies and in order to preserve their family treasures. Then the crypt in which the Capulets place the apparently dead Juliet is spectacular with its huge stone sculptures and its flights of dark stairs of stone. The production has a kind of rawness to it and just speeds along.

Muntagirov danced superbly showing off his spectacularly light and seemingly effortless jumps; his wonderfully controlled turns, including some in attitude devant as well as attitude derrière, along with some great manèges with various showy steps. But what I especially admired about his Romeo was the way he made his emotions so visible. A highlight was when he watched a wedding parade enter the market place (to the accompaniment of mandolins) in the early moments of Act II. As he stood downstage, almost motionless, we could read that he was thinking that he and Juliet could and should follow that very example. Another was his undisguised anger at what Tybalt had done to Mercutio, and his determination to avenge the death of his friend.

Sarah Lamb is not my favourite Juliet I’m afraid. I know Juliet is a mere 13 or 14 years old but, within the MacMillan structure, I would have preferred a more feisty Juliet. But with her beautifully proportioned limbs and sound technique she danced superbly and was a joy to watch from that point of view

I enjoyed Thomas Whitehead’s commanding presence as Tybalt, especially in the scenes in the market place where his dislike of Romeo was constantly visible, and in the ball scene where his carriage of the upper body marked him as being a proud and aristocratic Capulet. And incidentally, the corps danced beautifully in the ball scene as they tilted their bodies slightly back from the waist upwards in a show of historical deportment. Other dancers to admire especially were Marcelino Sambé as a vibrant Mercutio, Téo Dubreuil as a constantly concerned Benvolio, and Christina Arestis as a very haughty Lady Montague who clearly could not bear the Capulet family.

This production was highly engaging and I love to ponder its character beside the others that I have seen—those of Cranko, Graeme Murphy, John Neumeier, Stanton Welch, and the two versions that take particular liberties for one reason or another—those of Sasha Waltz and Natalie Weir. (I have no review on this site of the Cranko production. It has been a while since the Australian Ballet showed it).

Michelle Potter, 7 May 2019

Featured image: Sarah Lamb as Juliet, Vadim Muntagirov as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2015. Photographed by Alice Pennefather

Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet

11 March 2016, the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

What a pleasure it was to be sitting in the auditorium of Copenhagen’s beautiful, old Royal Theatre waiting for the curtain to go up on a production of Romeo and Juliet—John Neumeier’s version too, which I had never seen: such a sense of anticipation not just because for me it was a different production, but also because it was about ten years since I last saw the Royal Danish Ballet. What a sense of occasion too because just as it was time for curtain up Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, a true balletomane, appeared in the Royal Box and the audience rose as one to welcome her.

But to the show …

The Neumeier Romeo and Juliet is said to have been partly inspired by John Cranko’s production, so well known to Australian audiences during the period of Maina Gielgud’s directorship of the Australian Ballet.  And yes, there is a spectre of Cranko somewhere there. But on the other hand, Neumeier’s production is quite distinctive. Choreographically it is absolutely fascinating, especially in the way it contrasts the movements of the elders of the Capulet and Montague families and those of the younger folk across the social strata. Both groups are given what I can only say are beautifully eccentric movements, especially for the arms and upper body. The elders often use a highly formalised vocabulary, while the young people have a freedom that sometimes verges on the wild. Gorgeous. And how beautifully did the dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet respond to this vocabulary!

Ida Praetorius as Juliet was completely entrancing. She showed off a stellar technique—the highlight for me came when she was refusing the attentions of Paris and at one point, in desperation, tossed off an amazing, perfect double turn in arabesque with arms flung upwards and body slightly tilted. But not only did she dance with such perfection, her characterisation of Juliet was brilliant. She played the role as it was written—she was a thirteen year old. She often seemed slightly awkward of limb, she often made her youth clear by seeming not to know how to behave in every situation, and her nervousness and vulnerability were clear, especially when she executed that wonderful stumble on the last few stairs as she entered the ballroom for the Capulet ball. But throughout, her youthful, slightly crazy love for Romeo was always obvious.

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu
Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

As Romeo, Andreas Kaas was as ardent and dramatic in love as one could hope. His enthusiasm and desire for Juliet showed in his every movement. He rushed to her. He could scarcely hold back his longing for her. Kaas and Praetorius, together, made the two characters come alive in a way I have never seen before. It seems like a partnership made in heaven from both a dancerly and dramatic point of view.

Another stand-out performance came from Sebastian Haynes as Mercutio, dashing and charismatic as a character, thrilling as a dancer. His death scene was powerfully moving and made more so by the feisty way Romeo took on Tybalt after the stabbing. I also admired Susanne Grinder as Lady Capulet. She moved with such strength and such elegance, sweeping her way through Neumeier’s formal choreography and wearing her bright orange gown with style and aplomb—a true aristocrat. And I have never taken all that much notice of the entourage that enters the square to try to restore some peace to the conflicts between the Capulets and the Montagues. But in this production Poul-Erik Hesselkilde was a towering presence as the Prince of Verona. Mostly he stood still, centre stage, but he was so in command of the role that his power spread across the stage and out into the auditorium.

There were so many magical moments, too, inserted by Neumeier to make more sense of the story. The potion that the friar gives to Juliet, for example, we know is not a deadly poison but Neumeier introduces a group of street performers who, in a commedia dell’arte manner, mime the effect the liquid will have. Juliet and the friar stand motionless, in a kind of freeze frame, in the act of giving and receiving the vial.

As is usual in Royal Danish Ballet performances, the presence of children in the crowd scenes was always noticeable. I loved the way the adult dancers in the corps de ballet interacted with them, shielding them from fight scenes, making sure they hurried off during the more gruesome moments. And as for the corps, I loved that they looked as though dancing was their life and not just their job.

Costumes and sets were by Jürgen Rose, also responsible for the design of the Cranko production. But his work for Neumeier had a very different feel and was often unusual in the way Neumeier’s choreography was unusual. His striking red wedding dress with white turban for Juliet was quite startling, for example, and the church for the wedding, which was created as plain brown flats slid beautifully and noiselessly into place, had all the simplicity of a Cistercian abbey church. Nothing was overdone but everything contributed beautifully and economically to the unfolding story.

This Romeo and Juliet was such a striking production, so beautifully danced by the entire company and musically thrilling—it just took my breath away. The evening sped by and it was by far the most exciting and captivating performance I have seen for years, anywhere in the world.

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: Costin Radu
Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

Michelle Potter, 15 March 2016

Dance diary. March 2015

  • Hannah O’Neill

Although the Paris Opera Ballet’s website is still listing Australian Ballet School graduate Hannah O’Neill as a coryphée on its organisational chart, O’Neill is now a sujet with the company. Several French websites are carrying this news including Danser canal historique. O’Neill’s promotion took place as a result of a competitive examination, held at the end of 2014, for promotion within the company. O’Neill performed a set piece, Gamzatti’s variation from Act II of Rudolf Nureyev’s La Bayadère, and her chosen piece, a variation from George Balanchine’s Walpurgis Night.

Hannah O'Neill in William Forsythe's Pas./Parts. Photo (c) Sébastien Mathé
Hannah O’Neill in William Forsythe’s Pas./Parts. © Sébastien Mathé–Opéra national de Paris. Reproduced with permission

O’Neill will also make her debut as Odette/Odile in the Nureyev Swan Lake at the Opéra Bastille on 8 April, and the performance is sold out! Quite an astonishing rise for someone who joined the Paris Opera Ballet on a temporary, seasonal contract only in late 2011 (the same year she graduated from the Australian Ballet School). O’Neill was given a life-time contract in 2013, another astonishing feat for someone who is not French by birth; was promoted to coryphée at the end of 2013; and now is a sujet (closest Australian equivalent is probably soloist).

And what a beautiful photograph from Sébastien Mathé. That ‘Dutch tilt’ is so perfect for conveying the feeling of a Forsythe piece.

  • Madeleine Eastoe

The news that Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe will retire at the end of the current season of Giselle set my mind racing. How lucky I have been over the years. She has given me so many wonderful dancing moments to remember. Some were unexpected: a mid-season matinee in Sydney many years ago (probably during the Ross Stretton era come to think of it) when she made her debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet—the Cranko version. Some were thrilling: those fouettés in Stanton Welch’s Divergence! Some have rightly been universally acclaimed: her performances in works by Graeme Murphy, notably the leading roles in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. One made history: her debut in Giselle in Sydney in 2006 after which she was promoted to principal. But, from my extensive personal store of memories, I loved her debut as the Sylph in La Sylphide in Melbourne in 2005. Looking back:

At the next day’s matinee, the leading roles of the Sylphide and James were danced by Madeleine Eastoe and Tim Harbour. Eastoe caught easily the feathery and insubstantial nature of the Sylphide but she also conveyed a bit of artifice in her dealings with James. She hovered. She darted. She was here. She was there. Her bourrees were as delicate as the wings of the butterfly she catches for James in Act II. But when she wept at the window in Act I, when she melted with grief as she rebuked James that he loved another, and when she capriciously snatched the ring meant for Effie from his hand, we knew that James was trapped not by love but by the trickery of a fey person. Here was the beautiful danger. This was Eastoe’s debut performance as the Sylphide and she showed all the technical and dramatic strengths that mark her as one of the Australian Ballet’s true stars. (Michelle Potter, ballet.co magazine, April 2005)

Madeleine Eastoe in a study for 'La Sylphide', 2005. Photo: Justin Smith
Madeleine Eastoe in a study for La Sylphide, 2005. Photo: Justin Smith

Again, a stunning image and one that has inspired my writing about the Romantic era. And may Eastoe lead a fulfilling life after Giselle.

  • The Goddess of Air at the Stray Dog Café

This blog article from the British Library is a lovely read and includes a gorgeous portrait of Tamara Karsavina by John Singer Sargent.

  • Press for March 2019 (Update May 2019: (Online links to articles published by The Canberra Times before early 2015 are no longer available)

‘Note [on Quintett].’ Program note for Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind season.

‘Undercover Designs.’ Article on Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the film Undercover (1983), The National Library of Australia Magazine, March 2015, pp. 20–23. Online version.

‘Classical ballet a dance to the death.’ Article on Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle, The Canberra Times (Panorama), 7 March 2015, p. 18.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2015

Dance diary. March 2014

  • Prince of the Pagodas

As a much younger person I remember being fascinated by Svetlana Beriosova. I guess she was the dancer I admired most when I was a ballet student, although I’m not sure why as I had never seen her dance. But she looked so coolly elegant from photographs, and I particularly remember images of her in what sounded from 1950s Sydney, thousands of miles away from London, like a very exotic ballet, Prince of the Pagodas. Beriosova did come to Australia with the Royal Ballet, which visited Sydney in 1958. I was there, autograph book in hand, as these stars from afar came out of the stage door of the old Empire Theatre at Railway Square. That season I finally saw Beriosova dance—as Swanilda in Coppélia.

Prince of the Pagodas, however, remained a mystery. The first production, choreographed by John Cranko in 1957 to a commissioned score by Benjamin Britten, was short-lived. Kenneth MacMillan produced another version in 1989, which was recently restaged by the Royal Ballet. I didn’t have an opportunity to see either the Cranko or the MacMillan version, but I did catch a third version created by David Bintley in 2011. Bintley made his production for the National Ballet of Japan and it has just finished a season in London danced by Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet. Sadly for my childhood dreams, it was one of the most disappointing shows (and it was a show in the more popular meaning of that word) I have seen recently.

Bintley rewrote the narrative and set it in Japan but the story remains as crazy as ever, requiring a suspension of belief beyond belief. There are various reviews available online, along with accounts of the storyline and discussions of the history of the work, but I won’t post the links—they are easy to find. Suffice it to say that in 2014 I find it a little offensive to have characters called ‘Balinese Ladies’ who engage in choreography that vaguely references but basically, in my opinion, denigrates Balinese dancing; or rows of ladies dressed in long, pink gowns twirling pink parasols as if they are performing something called The Cherry Blossom Show. And I am mentioning just two of the more irritating (to me) elements of the production.

Britten’s score might continue to deserve a place in the concert repertoire, especially as an example of the ubiquitous influence of the Balinese gamelan on Western composers of Britten’s generation, largely under the influence of the eminent Canadian ethnomusicologist, Colin McPhee. But as a ballet, Prince of the Pagodas should probably just disappear into the mists of time. I doubt if any amount of tinkering can save it.

Beriosova’s image as a great dancer, however, remains intact for me.

  • More on Simple Symphony

Just a few days ago I had the huge pleasure of encountering first hand the unpublished dance writing of Lionel Bradley, whom I now like to think of as a blogger before the internet, and the word ‘blog’, was invented. Bradley was a librarian at the London Library in the 1940s and a great lover of ballet and dance of all kinds (and of other forms of performance). His handwritten dance texts, Ballet Bulletins 1941–1947 and Ballevaria Miscellanea 1937–1947, which he liked to circulate as he comleted each entry to a small group of friends, are housed in the Department of Theatre and Performance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Although I was not there specifically to research Simple Symphony, as I had previously posted some thoughts about it it was a bonus to find that in his Bulletins Bradley had spent some time discussing early performances of this ballet by Walter Gore, which was a staple item in the repertoire brought to Australia on the Ballet Rambert tour of 1947–1949. Bradley was enthralled by the ballet. It was ‘a gorgeous success’ he wrote when he saw it for the first time in Torquay in December 1944 during one of Ballet Rambert’s regional tours.

His discussion of the backcloth and costumes by Ronald Wilson is especially interesting as I have never seen colour photographs or colour footage of the work, or even a photograph showing the backcloth. ‘The backcloth for Simple Symphony‘, Bradley wrote, ‘depicts a seashore, somewhat after the manner of Christopher Wood. There are two piles of greenish stones, one tall and narrow, one somewhat shorter, and a suggestion of fish nets. There are two wings [flats] on either side, the one nearer the backcloth being light and blue with some nautical decoration, while the front ones are dark brown and reddish brown. Near the front is a low border showing 2 angels & fish nets’.

Bradley goes on to describe the costumes and to discuss the structure of each of the four sections that make up the work. What wonderful resources Bradley’s writings turned out to be.

My previous post on Simple Symphony is a this link.

  • Jane Pritchard

I was delighted too to learn that Jane Pritchard, curator of dance at the V & A, had received an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list. This is belated news, with which I have only just caught up, but congratulations to Jane. How rare it is for someone working in an archival area to be recognised in such a way.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2014

Colin Peasley. Lifetime Achievement Award

The recipients of 2012 Green Room Awards were announced a few days ago when the Green Room Awards Association also announced the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, which is awarded each year to a person who has contributed significantly to theatre life in Melbourne. The 2012 recipient was Colin Peasley, who retired last year from the Australian Ballet after a long and illustrious performing career, largely but not entirely with the Australian Ballet.

Peasley is seen below in two of the travesty roles for which he became so well-known, on the left as Gamache in a 1970 performance of Rudolf Nureyev’s production of Don Quixote, and on the right in a 1973 performance as the younger Step-Sister in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella. Both images are by Walter Stringer and are from the National Library’s Walter Stringer collection.

Again from the Stringer material held in the National Library, Peasley is seen below in the more dramatic roles of Friar Laurence in a 1975 performance of John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet with Marilyn Rowe as Juliet, and of Hilarion in a 1973 performance of Peggy van Praagh’s production of Giselle.

Closer to the present time, here is a shot from the 2009 production of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker in which Peasley played one of Clara the Elder’s émigré friends.

Ai-Gul Gaisina, ‘Nutcracker’ Act 1. Photo: © Branco Gaica, 2009

A tiny glimpse of a diverse career! A well deserved award too.

Michelle Potter, 8 May 2013

Links to National Library image credits:

Colin Peasley as Gamache in Don Quixote, 1970
Colin Peasley as the younger Step-Sister in Cinderella, 1973
Colin Peasley as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, 1975
Colin Peasley as Hilarion in Giselle, 1973