8 December 2023. The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
I was more than curious when I heard that Loughlan Prior was preparing a ballet based on the much-loved children’s book by Mem Fox, Possum Magic. I mean how on earth was he going to manage the invisibility of Hush, the possum character on whom Grandma Poss casts a spell making Hush disappear from sight in order to save her from danger in the bush? Despite the invisibility, Hush continues to play an ongoing, major role as her visibility slowly reappears. She rarely leaves the stage.
Well I need not have worried. It all happened with cleverly introduced costume changes and terrific input from the other characters who acted beautifully throughout to stage a pretence that they couldn’t see Hush while she was under the spell of invisibility.
Grandma Poss has forgotten the magic that will return Hush to a state of visibility and, as the story progresses, the invisible Hush and Grandma Poss hop on a bike and travel through the Australian countryside and the country’s major cities, nicely shown through snippets of film, looking for human food that might restore Hush’s visibility. After eating some typical Australian delicacies at various stops, including Pavlova, Lamingtons, Vegemite, Minties, Anzac biscuits and others, Hush returns slowly to a visible state. The critical items are Pavlova, Vegemite and Lamingtons and the return to visibility, and arrival back in the bush where the characters live, is warmly welcomed by everyone.
Milana Gould as Hush danced beautifully. Her finely boned body and her long and flexible limbs brought out the best in Prior’s choreography, which shows not only classical steps and combinations, but some more contemporary movements as well. Kit Thompson as Grandma Poss gave an outstanding performance with excellent stage presence and I especially enjoyed watching two sparring kangaroos (Thomas Boddington and Tadgh Robinson) and an impressive and quite dominant koala (Ethan Mrmacovski).
Possum Magic. The Ballet showed Loughlan Prior at his theatrical best. His insertion of film was exceptional as was his varied choreography to suit the characters, especially for the Pavlova ladies whose dancing was very classical indeed. His collaborators worked beautifully with him with a very danceable score from Claire Cowan, costumes and set from Emma Kingsbury (I especially loved the Pavlova tutus—red skirts trimmed with white Pavlova slices around the edges); and lighting from Jon Buswell. The ballet is a delight to watch and encapsulates beautifully the Mem Fox book on which it is based. It deserves further showings.
The second half of the program consisted of three short items, Degas dances from Paul Knobloch and largely danced by Level 4 students of the School with some outstanding solo sections from Ruito Takabatake; Nexus from Stephen Baynes for Level 7 students; and Techno Requiem from Lucas Jervies showing a contemporary dance style and strongly performed by Level 8 students. I was particularly thrilled to see Nexus as Baynes’ choreography is not often on show these days. Nexus, danced to Capriccio for Piano and String Orchestra by Graeme Koehne, shows Baynes’ innate musicality, his beautiful and sometimes surprising use of space, and his unique choreographic style and structure. But in all this second part showed off the range of dance that is taught at the Australian Ballet School.
In November the Canberra Critics’ Circle announced its awards for 2023. This year five dance awards were presented:
Ruth Osborne, outgoing director of QL2 Dance, which Osborne has led since 1999. Osborne’s award recognised in particular her outstanding input into James Batchelor’s production Shortcuts to Familiar Places, which was presented at Canberra’s Playhouse in April 2023. My review of Shortcuts is at this link.
Natsuko Yonezwa and Itazura Co for the film Kiku. Kiku and its accompanying documentary explored dance and the ageing body through the experiences of six Canberra women. My review is at this link.
Australian Dance Party for Culture Cruise. Culture cruise gave those who joined the cruise an innovative experience over land and water, which fused the performing arts, fine dining and Canberra’s cultural institutions. Read my review at this link.
Gretel Burgess for A Stroke of Luck. A Stroke of Luck gave Gretel Burgess the opportunity to produce and direct her lived experience as a stroke survivor. Bill Stephens’ review is at this link.
Caitlin Schilg for her choreography for the Canberra Philharmonic Society Production of Cats. Caitlin Schilg drew on a diverse range of dance styles to create a series of brilliantly staged production numbers for the musical Cats. Read a review by Bill Stephens at this link.
Oral history interview with Alice Topp
In November I had the pleasure, and honour, of recording an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia with Alice Topp, outgoing resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet.
Alice was most forthcoming about her life and career to date and the interview contains some detailed material about her choreographic process and the establishment of Project Animo, her joint initiative with lighting designer Jon Buswell. The interview is currently undergoing accessioning but cataloguing details will be available in due course.
For more about Alice Topp on this website follow this link.
News from Queensland Ballet
Queensland Ballet has announced details of changes to its line-up of dancers for 2024 including the news that principal dancers Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez will leave the company at the end of 2023 to join the Australian Ballet in 2024. Heathcote and Estévez have made a remarkable contribution to Queensland Ballet over the past several years. Each has given me much pleasure (Heathcote from as far back as 2013 before she even joined Queensland Ballet) and I hope they will be given every opportunity with the Australian Ballet.
In other news from Queensland Ballet, the company recently announced the establishment of the Van Norton Li Community Health Institute with the goal of sustaining and expanding its Dance Health programs across socioeconomic, age and geographic boundaries and all abilities. For more about the program, including information about the donors to this project, follow this link.
The opening work, Serenade, to Tchaikovsky, is an abstraction of femininity, a favoured topic of Balanchine’s. It was created, in 1934, for students at the School of American Ballet that fed his company, so the memory of several productions at New Zealand School of Dance here across the decades, with the aura of fresh innocence of students at the threshold of their careers, has been special. The work has also been performed a number of times by RNZBallet since the 1970s.
My interest in watching Serenade is always to follow the dancers’ eye and facial expression, which styles the production and invites our response to it. Despite the uniformity of torso movement and port de bras required, some dancers in this cast smiled broadly and looked directly at the audience, whereas others looked into the far or the middle distance, raising the question as to what the performers are thinking about, and how Balanchine himself might originally have styled the work. The twirling pirouettes of tulle skirts always works its special poetry, but the use of token male dancers to lift a female dancer aloft in the closing scene has always seemed anachronistic. Having said that I do know that many balletomanes adore this work, even rate it as their favourite, and I respect that. All the dancers performed with aplomb, but Mayu Tanigaito found a way to invest her abstract movements with a spiritual quality that puts her in a class of her own.
(Harry Haythorne, artistic director here 1982–1993, told me that when a member of Metropolitan Ballet in UK he sustained an injury that put him out of performing for some time. He used the rest period to study Laban’s dance notation, and became fluent enough to score Balanchine’s Serenade, the first notator to do so. Although many versions of the score have since been made, Harry’s was the first, so it is poignant to visit the Dance Notation Bureau in New York and sight the initials HH at the footer of each page of his score.)
The second work, Te Ao Mārama. choreographed by Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, opened with the renowned Ariana Tikau playing pūtõrino, that most distinctive of taonga pūoro (Maori traditional instruments). I would have thought this sound would reach acoustically into every corner of the theatre, since these instruments were traditionally played in open air. I must confess that amplification of it, plus the electric guitar and amplification from Shayne Carter on the opposite side of the stage, made for challenging acoustic contrast. The dance itself explored the theme of moving from Te Kore, the darkness, as though searching for fragments of what would in time grow into haka, traditional dance, into the world of light, Te Ao Mārama. This is an interesting notion, for a choreographer to make a dance about dancing, and the final haka was certainly performed with vigour and intent by the all-male cast. I found various lighting effects, including bright white beams that swept into the audience’s eyes several times, as though to dazzle them, both unpleasant and distracting.
I did welcome the reminders of various incorporations of Maori dance influence into the repertoire of RNZB over their seven decades. Poul Gnatt in 1953 choreographed Satan’s Wedding, which a reviewer at the time (DJCM in The Auckland Star) noted reminded him of the power of haka, which was quite a thrill for Poul to hear. In 1990s Matz Skoog’s and Sue Paterson’s project that combined RNZB with Split Enz music, and Te Matārae ī Orehu on the same program, Ihi FreNZy, made very strong impression—especially when, by way of epilogue, both companies of dancers combined in a rousing haka. By the time that tour ended, Shannon Dawson, one of the strongest character dancers the Company has ever known, seemed to have changed his ethnicity. I doubt if another pākehā has ever performed haka so convincingly. My standout memory though, across all the years, is from Gray Veredon’s Tell me a Tale, set in mid 19th century, in which Warren Douglas led a haka of rage against the young colonial boy (played by Kim Broad), his father (played by Jon Trimmer) and mother (played by Kerry-Anne Gilberd). The boy had dared to fall in love with (Warren’s) sister and that provoked a taparahi never to be forgotten. We could all now haka in rage and sorrow that Warren was taken so young, and we lost a phenomenal dance talent when he lost his life.
The third work, Requiem for a Rose, is choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, to Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. There is a depth, beauty and mystery in this piece that resonates, not only as a flower of romance, but with what the rose has meant as symbol of life and love, to different peoples and cultures in history, across stories, poems and paintings—originally from Persia, China, India, South America, and then worldwide. Twelve dancers, male and female, wear rich red circular skirts that seem almost fragrant when illuminated by Jon Buswell’s outstanding lighting design. They dance a series of four duets and a quartet, all very well cast, and beautifully set to the music. The 13th dancer, Kirby Selchow, wearing the barest of leotards and no skirt, carrying a red rose in her mouth throughout, powerfully sustains the essence and mystery at the heart of this enigmatic and beautiful work.
The fourth work, Logos, choreographed by Alice Topp, is to a very effective commissioned score by Ludovico Einaudi. The opening duet, by Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout—and the closing duet, by Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Matthew Slattery, are equally exquisite though in very different ways. (In later solo sections Teachout seemed to have found an astonishing quality of torso movement that evokes the likes of choreography we have seen from Douglas Wright dancers—which made him a standout in a cast of already strong dancers.) There are a number of quotations oddly laid out in the program notes, but I guess that matters not as simply following and absorbing the dance as it progresses from a dark and troubled beginning to a clearer lighter place was all the guidance we needed. Topp and Buswell collaborated brilliantly in the design for this work. Its apotheosis is a theatrical coup, and one that will stay with all who see it, even as it suggests what some might see as a disturbing harbinger for the planet. A powerful work of theatre with much to admire.
There is an exhibition in the theatre foyer to mark this as the 70th year of the Company. There are many wonderful images that remind us of a rich and varied repertoire across the decades. A National Film Unit documentary, with footage from 1959–1962 performances, is screening within the exhibition, and is a treasure. My favourite vignette in this film has always been of Jacqui Oswald Trimmer dancing in Do-Wack-a-Do, composed by the legendary Dorothea Franchi. Jacqui would have won a role in The Great Gatsby if she had used this as her audition piece. Gloria Young, Sara Neil, Anne Rowse, Patricia Rianne, Terence James, Carol Draper, Christine Smith, Valerie Whyman, Kirsten Ralov and Fredbjörn Björnsson all make striking cameo appearances in the film, and the alumnae gathering for celebrations will have great fun in following them all.
There is much to savour in the storyboards, but one statement cannot go unchallenged. Friends of the New Zealand Ballet was formed by Poul Gnatt in 1953 (not some decades later as stated). Without those subs from Friends in the 1950s, this company would simply not have made it round the country. Poul used to drive the truck with scenery and costumes from town to town to town—pick up every hitch-hiker he spied, and by the time the hikers climbed down from the truck at the end of the ride they were subscribed members of Friends of the Ballet. Poul used the money to buy petrol to drive the truck to the next town. It’s an important story—because when Poul a decade later returned to his native Denmark he taught colleagues at Royal Danish Ballet that they too should set up a Friends—which they named Ballet Appreciation Club. It has survived to this day with a staggering number of audience education and outreach activities. If they remember that Poul showed them how a Friends outfit can work, we should surely remember that too.
13 May 2023. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
‘Paragon’ is a noun that means ‘a model of perfection and excellence’. The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographer, Alice Topp, set out in her latest production, named Paragon, to demonstrate something of the excellence and perfection (or attempts at perfection perhaps since perfection is something that we can only hope to achieve), which has characterised the past 60+ years since the Australian Ballet gave its first performance in 1962.
Following the overture to Christopher Gordon’s very danceable score, Paragon began with three performers on stage, one holding a swathe of white translucent fabric onto which were projected images of dancers from earlier Australian Ballet days. Once the white cloth was removed, the use of images from earlier eras was projected largely onto vertical panels positioned upstage, and continued as a significant feature of the work. The outstanding audio-visual editing was by Ario Dean Cook.
But links to the past were also featured as several former Australian Ballet dancers worked among and with current dancers. David McAllister and Paul Knobloch appeared with current dancers in a powerful section called ‘Quake’, for example. Then some of the most moving scenes were ‘Saudade’ (meaning ‘Yearning’) with Fiona Tonkin and Adam Bull, ‘Home’ with Lucinda Dunn and Joseph Caley, and ‘Sehnsucht Couple’ with Madeleine Eastoe and Marcus Morelli (with Sehnsucht also meaning ‘Yearning’ or ‘Desire’). In each of these the choreography was filled with unusual lifts, extraordinary extensions of the legs, bounding jumps and jetes, and other twists and turns of the body, often in an uncompromisingly upside down position or across the floor. And every dancer, retired or not, performed with more than admirable strength and exactitude, perhaps even bordering on perfection.
A scene that I found fascinating was ‘Vogue’, which made reference to the Australian Ballet’s commissioning of designers. In the background we saw projected images of various designs on paper for past Australian Ballet productions, while onstage every dancer wore something contemporary and quite ‘vogue-ish’, often a jacket worn over a sparse costume, mostly of bikini-like proportions. Costumes for Paragon were by Aleisa Jelbart, with set and lighting by Jon Buswell.
Yes, there was a strong feeling of nostalgia as the work progressed, which perhaps came to a head in the final section when Kirsty Martin and Steven Heathcote led the finale. But Paragon also gave the audience a remarkable look at Topp as a choreographer. It showed her working with a vocabulary that is clearly one of contemporary ballet, pushing boundaries, and thinking outside the square when it comes to what ballet can present in a narrative sense. Within it all was a beautiful tribute to the history of the Australian Ballet.
Paragon was part of the Australian Ballet’s double bill called Identity. THE HUM by Daniel Riley was the other work on the program. See below for a list of those retired performers who contributed to Paragon.
Retired dancers appearing in Paragon: Simon Dow, Lucinda Dunn, Madeleine Eastoe, Steven Heathcote, Paul Knobloch, Sarah Lehmann (Peace), Kirsty Martin, David McAllister, Marilyn Rowe, Leanne Stojmenov, Jessica Thompson and Fiona Tonkin.
10 December 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Choreography: John Cranko Design: Jürgen Rose Lighting: Jon Buswell Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
It is hard to believe that it is around 20 years since John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet was last performed by the Australian Ballet. Since then the production of Romeo and Juliet that the Australian Ballet has shown on numerous occasions has been by Graeme Murphy. Apart from the Murphy production, in the 20 years prior to the current production of Cranko’s work, I have seen Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, danced by the Royal Ballet and by Queensland Ballet, as well as productions by Stanton Welch for Houston Ballet, Sasha Waltz for the Paris Opera Ballet, John Neumeier’s production danced by the Royal Danish Ballet, a condensed version with the title R & J by Natalie Weir for Expressions Dance Company, and a reimagined production of the story, called Unravel, by a Canberra-based pre-professional company. So, rather than do a regular review I am simply noting some high points from the performance I saw just recently from the Australian Ballet.
Tybalt I had the good fortune to see Joseph Romancewicz in the role of Tybalt, kinsman of the Capulet family. I have enjoyed watching Romancewicz for some time now and I thought his performance as Tybalt demonstrated a well thought through characterisation. He was cold and unrelenting in his dislike for the Montagues. He never fell out of character and his sword fight with Mercutio and then his death at the hands of Romeo were dramatic and powerful.
The ball scene (Act I, scene 4) The largely-black costumes by Jürgen Rose for the guests at the Capulet ball were spectacular, as was the choreography and the dancing of it. I especially loved the moments when the men fell to their knees, on cushions they had dropped to the floor, and made a kind of reverence to their lady partners.
The music The well-known music by Sergei Prokofiev, with the orchestra under the baton of the new Australian Ballet conductor Jonathan Lo, sounded just brilliant. Filled with such a diversity of thematic material and so much emotion, it was used to great effect by Cranko.
The carnival scene in the marketplace of Verona (Act II, scene 1) Although I found the costuming for this scene a little overly decorative, the dancing was exciting to watch: I especially enjoyed the acrobatic moments by a quartet of very flexible performers. But all the dancers were full of the excitement of the moment, until the joy was interrupted by the demands of Tybalt.
The progression of the storyline The storyline moved along quickly and without a hitch. Every scene made its point clearly, never lingering over non-essential matters. The one exception, perhaps, was the dance of the bridesmaids (Act III, scene 3) which choreographically seemed to be a little uninspiring to me and continued for too long.
Apart from the dance for the bridesmaids, there were other aspects of the work that didn’t appeal, which I think related more to the dancers I saw than to the work itself. Apart from Romancewicz, the only other dancer who made my eyes light up was Lucien Xu as Benvolio, who often is an easy-to-ignore character. But not this time.
As a final comment, I have to say that Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, which concludes the Australian Ballet’s 2022 season, is a master work really. It had, thankfully, so much more to offer than the previous program, Instruments of Dance.
Michelle Potter 12 December 2022
For reviews of other productions of Romeo and Juliet, and some stories relating to the work, see this link.
This is an expanded version of an obituary written by Jennifer Shennan and published in The Dominion Post online on 2 April 2022.
Russell Kerr, leading light of ballet in New Zealand, has died in Christchurch aged 92. The legendary dancer, teacher, choreographer and producer influenced generations of New Zealand dancers. Kerr’s hallmark talent was to absorb music so as to draw out character, narrative, human interest, emotion, poetry and comedy that ballet in the theatre can offer. Thrusting your leg high in the air, or even behind your head, just because you can, is the empty gesture of perfunctory performance that he found exasperating. Shouting and sneering at dancers, telling them they are not good enough, was anathema to him. One dancer commented, ‘Mr Kerr always treated you as an artist so you behaved like one.’
Born in Auckland in 1930, the younger of two sons, Russell was already learning piano from his mother, a qualified teacher, when a doctor recommended dance classes to strengthen against the rheumatoid arthritis that ailed the child. Did that doctor follow the remarkable career that ensued from his advice? Years later Russell was asked if it was difficult, back then, to be the only boy in a ballet school of girl pupils? He chuckled, ‘Oh no, it was marvellous—there I was in a room full of girls and no competition for their attention. It was great fun.’
Kerr made impressive progress both in dancing and piano, achieving LTCL level, then starting to teach. He could have been a musician, but dancing won out when in 1951 he was awarded a Government bursary to study abroad. In London he trained at Sadler’s Wells, with Stanislaw Idzikowski (a dancer in both Pavlova’s and Diaghilev’s companies), and also Spanish dance with Elsa Brunelleschi. Upon her advice and just for the experience, he went to an audition at the leading flamenco company of José Greco. Flamenco would be one of the world’s most demanding dance forms, both technically and musically. Remarkably, he was offered the job, providing he changed his name to Rubio Caro! How fitting that Kerr’s first contract was as a dancing musician. When asked later how he’d managed it he replied, ‘Oh, I just followed the others.’
Russell Kerr in 1951 shortly before leaving for England
After a time, Sadler’s Wells’ leading choreographer, Frederick Ashton, declared Russell’s body not suitably shaped for ballet. ‘I’ll show you’ he muttered to himself, and so he did. In a performance of Alice in Wonderland, he scored recognition in a review (‘Kerr’s performance as a snail was so lifelike you could almost see the slimy trail he left behind as he crossed the stage.’ As he later pointed out, ‘not many dancers are complimented in review for their slimy trails’). A sense of humour and irony was always hovering.
Kerr danced with Ballet Rambert, and was encouraged towards choreography by director Marie Rambert. Later he joined Festival Ballet, rising to the rank of soloist, earning recognition for his performances in Schéhérazade, Prince Igor, Coppélia, Petrouchka among others. Nicholas Beriosov had been regisseur to choreographer Fokine in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Kerr’s work with him at Festival Ballet lent a pedigree to his later productions from that repertoire as attuned and authentic as any in the world.
The investment of his Government bursary was exponentially repaid when Russell, now married to dancer June Greenhalgh, returned to New Zealand in 1957. He told me he spent the ship’s entire journey sitting in a deck chair planning how to establish a ballet company that might in time become a national one. Upon arrival he was astonished to learn that Poul Gnatt, formerly with Royal Danish Ballet, had already formed the New Zealand Ballet and, thanks to Community Arts Service and Friends of the Ballet since 1953, ‘…they were touring to places in my country I’d never even heard of. So I ditched my plans and Poul and I found a way to work together.’
Kerr became partner and later director of Nettleton-Edwards-Kerr school of ballet in Auckland. (I was an 11 year old pupil there. It was obvious that Mr Kerr was a fine teacher, encouraging aspiration though not competition. We became friends for life). Auckland Ballet Theatre had existed for some years but Kerr built up its size and reputation, staging over 30 productions. Perhaps the highlight of these was a season of Swan Lake on a stage on Western Springs lake. He produced a series, Background to Ballet, for Television New Zealand in its first year of broadcasting, and also choreographed many productions for Frank Poore’s Light Opera Company.
In 1959, New Zealand Ballet and Auckland Ballet Theatre combined in the United Ballet Season, involving dancers June Greenhalgh, Rowena Jackson, Philip Chatfield, Sara Neil and others. The program included Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor to Borodin’s sensuous score, and Prismatic Variations, co-choreographed by Kerr and Gnatt, to Brahms’ glorious St Anthony Chorale. Music as well as dance audiences in Auckland were astonished, and the triumphant season was repeated with equal success the following year in Wellington, when Anne Rowse joined the cast.
In 1960 a trust to oversee the New Zealand Ballet’s future was formed, and by 1962 Kerr was appointed Artistic Director. His stagings of classics—Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade—were balanced with new works, including the mysterious Charade, and whimsical One in Five. Kerr used compositions by Greig, Prokofiev, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Copland for his own prolific choreographic output—Concerto, Alice in Wonderland, Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf, The Alchemist, The Stranger. In 1964 he invited New Zealander Alexander Grant who had an established reputation as a character dancer with England’s Royal Ballet, to perform the lead role in Petrouchka, a superb production that alone would have earned Kerr worldwide recognition.
A fire at the company headquarters in 1967 meant a disastrous loss of sets and costumes that only added to the colossal demands of running the company on close to a shoestring budget. Kerr’s health was in an extremely parlous state. In 1969 Gnatt returned from Australia and as interim director, with the redoubtable Beatrice Ashton as manager, kept the company on the road.
Russell had worked closely with Jon Trimmer, the country’s leading dancer, and his wife Jacqui Oswald, dancer and ballet mistress. They later joined him at the New Zealand Dance Centre he had established in Auckland, developing an interesting new repertoire. The Trimmers remember, ‘…Russell would send us out into the park, the street or the zoo, to watch people and animals, study their gait and gestures, to bring character to our roles.’ Kerr also mentored and choreographed for Limbs Dance Company. The NZDC operated until 1977, though these were impecunious and difficult years for the Kerr family. But courage and the sticking place were found, and Russell, as always, let music be his guide.
In 1978 he was appointed director at Southern Ballet Theatre, which proved lucky for Christchurch as he stayed there until 1990, later working with Sherilyn Kennedy and Carl Myers. In 1983 Harry Haythorne as NZB’s artistic director invited all previous directors to contribute to a gala season to mark the company’s 30th anniversary. Kerr’s satirical Salute, to Ibert, had Jon Trimmer cavorting as a high and heady Louis XIV.
His two lively ballets for children, based on stories by author-illustrator Gavin Bishop—Terrible Tom and Te Maia and the Sea Devil—proved highly successful, but there was a whole new chapter in Kerr’s career awaiting. After Scripting the Dreams, with composer Philip Norman, he made the full-length ballet, A Christmas Carol, a poignant staging alive with characters from Dickens’ novel, with design by Peter Lees-Jeffries. (The later production at RNZB had new design by Kristian Fredrikson).
Possibly the triumph of Kerr’s choreographies, and certainly one of RNZB’s best, was Peter Pan, again with Norman and Fredrikson, with memorable performances by Jon Trimmer as an alluring Captain Hook, Shannon Dawson as the dim-witted Pirate Smee, and Jane Turner an exquisite mercurial Tinkerbell.
Leading New Zealand dancers who credit Russell for his formative mentoring include Patricia Rianne, whose Nutcracker and Bliss, after Katherine Mansfield, are evidence of her claim, ‘I never worked with a better or more musical dance mind.’ Among many others are Rosemary Johnston, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Dawn Sanders, Martin James, Geordan Wilcox, Jane Turner, Diana Shand, Turid Revfeim, Shannon Dawson, Toby Behan—through to Abigail Boyle and Loughlan Prior.
An unprecedented season happened in 1993 when Russell cast Douglas Wright, the country’s leading contemporary dancer, in the title role of Petrouchka. He claimed Wright’s performances challenged the legendary Nijinsky.
An annual series named in his honour, The Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, saw the 2021 session about his own life and career movingly delivered by his lifelong colleague and friend, Anne Rowse. The lecture was graced by a dance, Journey, that Russell had choreographed for two Japanese students who came to study with him. It would be the last performance of his work, the more poignant for that.
Russell was writing his memoirs in the last few years, admitting the struggle but determined to keep going. He said, ‘Writing about my problem with drink is going to be a very difficult chapter.’ Russell had told Brian Edwards in a memorable radio interview decades back, of the exhausting time when his colossal work commitments had driven him ‘to think that the solution to every problem lay in the bottom of the bottle.’ He eventually managed to turn that around and thereafter remained teetotal for life—but by admitting it on national radio, he was offering hope to anyone with a similar burden, himself proof that there is a way out of darkness.
He viewed the sunrise as an invitation to do something with the day. He would bring June a cup of tea but not let her drink it till she had greeted the sun. Recently he took great joy in seeing photos of my baby granddaughter, rejoicing to be reminded of the hope a new life brings to a family.
Russell concurred with the sentiment expressed in Jo Thorpe’s fine poem, The dance writer’s dilemma (reproduced in Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60):
… the thing… which has nothing to do with epitaph which has nothing to do with stone. I just know I walk differently out into air because of what dance does sometimes.
Russell Kerr was a good and decent family man, loyal friend, master teacher and choreographer, proud of his work but modest by nature, resourceful and determined by personality, honest in communication, distressed by unkindness, a leader by example. A phenomenal and irreplaceable talent, he was a very great New Zealander.
He is survived by son David, daughter Yvette and their families.
Russell Kerr photographed in 2007
Russell Ian Kerr, QSM, ONZM, Arts Foundation Icon Born Auckland 10 February 1930 Married June, née Greenhalgh, one son (David), one daughter(Yvette) Died.Christchurch 28 March, 2022
Sources: David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Jon Trimmer, Patricia Rianne, Rosemary Buchanan, Martin James, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Ou Lu.
Jennifer Shennan, 3 April 2022
Featured image: Russell Kerr as director of Southern Ballet in 1983
I was booked to cross the Tasman to see Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent double bill program, The Firebird and Paquita, but the pandemic got in the way yet again. So I was pleased that a stream of Firebird was available, filmed in Wellington on its opening night there on 28 July 2021.
This Firebird was commissioned from Loughlan Prior, choreographer in residence with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and, while Prior used the music of Igor Stravinsky, familiar to many dance audiences, what resulted was a unique take on the story rather than what many might expect from a production named The Firebird. In essence, Prior’s Firebird is about hope in a world plagued by environmental crises and other chaotic matters, and the Firebird is portrayed as a phoenix-like character who gives hope as she rises from the ashes of destruction.
For most of the time the setting is grim and dark and seems mostly to take place in a run down corner of a harbour town where, in the background, we can see the remains of a ship and a gangplank or two that give the upstage area some height. This world is populated by two groups of people, the Wastelanders who work to survive in harsh conditions and the Scavengers who are constantly and sometimes unpleasantly on the lookout for food and water. Occasionally the scene shifts from a corner of this settlement to a forest-like area (no trees, just scrims and darkness) where the search for food and water takes place. The main figure among the Wastelanders is Arrow (Harrison James). He is without water and falls asleep in the forest area where he is discovered by the Firebird (Ana Gallardo Lobaina). After their encounter she gives him a feather, plucked from her body: it is capable of drawing up water from the depths of the earth.
But later the Firebird is captured by the Scavengers, led by the Burnt Mask (Paul Mathews) and his partner Elizaveta (Kirby Selchow). The Firebird is eventually released by Arrow’s partner, Neve (Sara Garbowski), but, angry at having been captured, the Firebird calls on the dark side of her powers to create an inferno that initially engulfs the harbour settlement. Then, drawing on her last remaining strength, she extinguishes the inferno and collapses into Arrow’s arms. Her body bursts into flames. But from the ashes she is reborn and hope fills the world.
Ana Gallardo Lobaina’s performance as the Firebird is an absolute standout, as is Prior’s choreography for her. At times, especially in her first solo, her movement is quite grounded, but at other times her arms have such a beautiful, lyrical quality, and the way she moves her neck and head tells us so much about her character. Her various pas de deux with Arrow are filled yet again with swirlingly beautiful arms and exceptional lifts. The duet after their first encounter is especially interesting. Harrison James’ performance here is at first hesitant and anxious; he is unsure of how to react to the creature he has just encountered. But he shows growing pleasure in the meeting and we see those changes of emotion quite clearly in the choreography and the performance of it.
Another choreographic highlight is the manner in which Prior develops the idea of the inferno that the Firebird creates. Four dancers surround her and support her as she storms her way around the stage, and at times they gather around her in poses that extend her arms so her wing span looks huge and confronting. Lobaina’s death throes are also beautifully structured and performed, as is her rebirth at the end of the work.
There were one or two moments that I thought needed some extra work from Prior. These were times when groups of dancers stood around watching the main events. Often they appeared not to be involved in the action taking place before them and they reminded me of the young ladies of the village in some productions of Giselle who stand around admiring each other’s dresses rather than being involved in the downstage action. On the other hand, the final group dance as the Firebird was reborn was great to watch with everyone joining in the spreading joy.
I was not a fan of some of Tracy Grant Lord’s costumes, in particular the ‘dropped crotch’ pants worn by many of the characters. While such clothes are something of a fashion item these days, they just look daggy to me, although I guess that added to the shabby look (no doubt intentional) that distinguished those characters and the roles they were playing. The costume for the Firebird, however, was quite spectacular in colour, fabric and cut.
I was blown away by Jon Buswell’s lighting and the exceptional use of visuals and animation from POW Studios, including the orange-red flame and sparkling red spots of light that preceded the comings and goings of the Firebird. Then there were the images of water covering the stage and the crashing waves that appeared in the background as chaos began to rage through the settlement. And, after the incendiary red orb, the darkness and the clouded sky behind the ruined ship that made up the main part of the set, the arrival of the light was quietly beautiful, especially the huge, softly-petalled pink flower that replaced the darkness of the sky.
In the end this Firebird has to be seen as an outstanding example of collaborative input from an exceptional team of creative artists. I can’t help wondering if the kind of visual additions of a technological kind that we saw in this Firebird is the way forward. I have seen similar uses of technology by contemporary companies in Australia (Sydney Dance Company springs to mind) but ballet companies often seem to be a little more set in their ways, especially in large-scale narrative works lasting two or more hours, which may not be surprising. But let’s keep moving.
Hansel & Gretel is choreographer
Loughlan Prior’s first full-length ballet, though he has a number of
accomplished short works (including a memorable Lark, for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald), as well as
choreographed films (including Memory
House, for Trimmer) already to his credit. Since this premiere, another of his works, The Appearance
of Colour, was
recently performed as part ofQueensland Ballet’s Bespoke program.
The energised success of Hansel & Gretel reveals the close rapport developed between Prior and composer Claire Cowan, who has produced a colourful and affecting score. Right from the first sounds (‘applause’ from orchestral percussion to walk the conductor to his podium), it is clear that the choreographer and composer share a sense of humour and fun. Conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington miss not a beat or a feat throughout.
Design by Kate Hawley, together with Jon Buswell’s lighting, delivers some striking effects. The opening visual, projected onto a gauze front curtain, is the number countdown of a film reel (the grandchildren whisper to ask , ‘Is this a ballet pretending to be a movie?’). A number of references to black and white silent movies of the 1920s are cleverly choreographed into the first scenes, making fitting resonance from the accompanying orchestra in the pit. A prologue of wealthy characters strutting in the street contrast with the poverty of the family of Hansel, Gretel and parents, with the father unable to sell his street brooms to anyone. There is a poignant scene of the hungry family around the table in their cabin, though the following long love duet between the parents seems to stall the choreographic pace somewhat.
Later, black and white scenes turn into the garish colours of cancan Candyland, aided and abetted by the Ice Cream Witch whose hurdy-gurdy bicycle is a creation Heath Robinson would have been proud of. A large cast of Dew Fairies, a Sandman, numerous confectionery and gingerbread assistants, and spooky creatures of the forest all offer a number of divertissements of entertainment and humour. There are echoes of the 1930s now, of Busby Berkeley film scenarios, with deliberate extravagances that send it in the direction of pantomime, leading, by their own admission, to sensory overload of props and costumes.
Spectacle is preferenced
over sustaining the narrative with its dark themes of the original version of
the Grimm brothers’ tale. In that regard, Prior has chosen to follow casting of
Humperdinck’s opera of the late 19th century, as well as the recent
choreographies by Liam Scarlett for the Royal Ballet and by Christopher Hampson
for Scottish Ballet. In those versions, the familiarity of the children’s
father bullied by a scheming cruel stepmother is converted to their simply
being poor but loving parents. This results in a weakening of the dramatic bite
and thematic link of evil between both Stepmother and Witch (read in some
interpretations as alter-egos of each other).
are dramatically involved in the original tale—sitting on the roof of the
family cottage, stealing the trail of breadcrumbs, leading the children to the
Witch’s lair, and finally back home. In this production the only birds are
portrayed in a brief scene by child extras, very fetchingly costumed in
raincoats with beak-shaped hoods, and carrying brooms to sweep up crumbs.
Perhaps more could have been made of the avian potential in the story since
birds are often convincingly stylised into ballet.
Highlight memories are of Hansel and Gretel—or should that be Gretel and Hansel since it’s the girl who always takes the initiative and makes sure little brother is in tow —with Shaun James Kelly as a naïve and playful boy, Kirby Selchow as the feisty older sister. The dazzling Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies, delivers radiantly, but also easily shifts into the syncopations of the jazz references that Prior and Cowan have skillfully introduced as cameo sequences.
The Ice Cream Witch is played by Katharine Precourt who, with mobile expressive face, clearly relishes the role. The Transformed Witch, played by Paul Mathews, is in full pantomime mode and takes hilarious advantage of the satirical strokes the choreography offers (including the tossing of a pair of pointe shoes into the cauldron, together with a large manny rat that proves inedible but will doubtless flavour/poison the stew). Mathews always inhabits rather than just portrays his roles and here he exaggerates wonderfully without ever wasting a gesture.
17 January 2019. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre.
Here is a slightly expanded version of my review of Coppélia in its storytime form. The review has already appeared in The Canberra Times online but is yet to appear in print.*
This Coppélia is the third production in the popular Storytime Ballet series produced for young people by the Australian Ballet. It follows storytime productions of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. These productions are advertised as being for children aged 3 and up but I was curious to know how ‘up’ things could be. So I took along two grandchildren (both boys) aged nine and eleven.
Coppélia, with its blend of humour, magic, easy to follow mime, and joyous activity, lends itself well to being rethought as an experience for the young. Its story is simple and it contains some fascinating characters. Apart from the main couple, Swanilda and Franz, who eventually resolve their problems, there is the eccentric Dr Coppélius, a toy maker who dabbles in his own brand of magic and, of course, Coppélia, the life-sized doll Dr Coppélius has created and hopes to bring to life. It is this doll we see sitting in the window of Dr Coppélius’ house and who is the cause of issues between Franz and Swanilda.
Dr Coppélius can be a formidable character but, in this production, anything alarming about him is reduced by the fact that he takes on the role of narrator. On stage narration has become a feature of the Australian Ballet’s storytime ballets and it is beautifully done on this occasion by Sean McGrath, whose acting and strong, clear voice were commented on by my young companions. The basics of his role in the full-length ballet were there. He loses his key when being jostled by the village folk thus allowing the village girls to enter his house, he reads from his book of spells to attempt to bring Coppélia to life, and so forth. But his character doesn’t really develop fully, which, although understandable, is a shame.
As far as the dancing goes, and after all it is still a ballet we are watching, the small company of just 12 artists (largely of graduates of the Australian Ballet School) does an excellent job. The main roles of Franz and Swanilda are rotated amongt company members. We saw Benjamin Obst as Franz and Jasmin Forner as Swanilda and both showed outstanding technical abilities. My companions were especially impressed with Obst’s tours en l’air and his grand pirouettes to which he added a showy jump every so often. I was impressed with Forner. Readers of The Canberra Times’ arts pages may remember a story about Forner published last year, which told of her recovery in Canberra Hospital from serious injuries sustained in a car accident. We saw her in Canberra last year as part of the Australian Ballet School’s graduation season, but she has developed more strength since then and danced beautifully. Watching her now, her recovery and return to ballet seem quite miraculous.
The ending of this Coppélia was without a wedding and its pas de deux, and we saw only the Dawn solo and not Prayer. So again there was something missing from the storyline and for me it all fell a bit flat. But nevertheless the ending was presented as celebratory occasion and the young people in the audience left feeling happy.
The full-length Coppélia is a three-act ballet with changes of set for each act. Designer Hugh Colman skilfully designed a single set for the storytime production, which with just a few moveable facades, and some fine lighting by Jon Buswell, could easily transform itself from village square to Dr Coppelius’ workshop and back to the square within the 50 minutes of this production, which had no interval at all.
The Canberra Theatre Centre’s Playhouse is a perfect venue for these storytime productions. It has a delightful intimacy that encourages participation from the very young, who made the most of the opportunity to assist Dr Coppélius with his magic, some using magic wands, others their magic fingers. My nine year old didn’t want to be part of the magic bits, although the eleven year old had no problem joining in and wiggling his fingers. I suspect, however, that for those young people who are slightly older, it was the strength of the dancing, from dancers not much older than they are, that attracted them. But there was definitely something for young people across quite a reasonable age range.
Michelle Potter, 19 January 2019
* UPDATE: Date of publication in print was 21 January 2019.
29 June 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
The Australian Ballet’s latest triple bill, Verve, once again raises the fascinating question of what is contemporary ballet? And once again the three works on the program, one each from Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour, and Alice Topp are examples of how varied answers to that question can be.
Constant Variants from Baynes was first made in 2007 although this is the first time I have seen it. It opened the program. It is impeccably constructed and is so at one with the music, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, that it is like seeing as well as hearing the sound. It gives us lyrical movement and sculptural poses. There are moments of playfulness and moments of wonderful unison from the dancers—a male trio stands out in particular. Michael Pearce’s set of partial picture frames, variously coloured, glow beautifully under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Constant Variants is calming, beautiful and recognisably classical.
The evening closed with Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015. I felt uneasy in 2015 and still do. Choreographically it is detailed in the extreme and the dancers capture that detail beautifully. But they constantly move sharply, cutting the air with their limbs, and I longed for a bit of curve to break up the razor-edged look. Aggression and anger predominate. But what makes me especially uneasy is that Filigree and Shadow doesn’t lead anywhere. I can’t see a structure, just a constant coming and going. For me that doesn’t work.
Placed in the middle of the program was Topp’s latest creation, Aurum, danced to four separate works by Ludovico Einaudi. And it was astonishing. There is a choreographer’s explanation for the inspiration behind the work, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer. But to tell the truth Aurum exists without an intellectual explanation. It is completely visceral. It is about us and how we connect and we are just carried along by its emotional power.
Its surging choreography is compelling (althought there were a few moments when I felt I was watching a phrase or two from a work by Jiri Kylian). But I loved the gorgeous, swooping lifts, the stretched and elongated bodies, and the often precarious balances. A particularly moving pas de deux between Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson stood out.
And of course there was that amazing group section, the third of the ‘movements’. It completely engulfed the audience as it pounded its way to a conclusion when the audience broke out into an uproar of pleasure and excitement (and it wasn’t even opening night). Then there was the final section, another pas de deux this time between Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov, which played with shadows and was thrillingly lit by Jon Buswell. It seemed to resolve all the emotional drama that had gone before it.
It is hard to remember another work that has had such an instant impact in Australia, except perhaps Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Let’s hope Aurum gets another showing soon.