Russell Kerr (1930–2022) Scripting the Dreams

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.

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960
June Greenhalgh and Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations, 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

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.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook and Peter Pan in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan, 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson

His sensitively nuanced productions of Swan Lake became benchmarks of the ever-renewing classic that deals with mortality and grief.

Russell Kerr rehearsing 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl
Russell Kerr rehearsing ‘Swan Lake’. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl

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

The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Firebird. Royal New Zealand Ballet

Online screening, 27 August-6 September 2021

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.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Harrison James in The Firebird. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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.

The Firebird and the inferno she creates. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court


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.

The Firebird is reborn. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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.

Michelle Potter, 29 August 2021

Featured image: The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet & Orchestra Wellington

6 November 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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 Colourwas recently performed as part of Queensland 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.

Scene from Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: ©Stephen A’Court

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).

Different birds 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.

Paul Mathews as the Witch and Shaun James Kelly as Hansel in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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. 

Kirby Selchow as Gretel closes the cauldron in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Thank goodness for curtain calls in character. The dancers have clearly had a rollicking good time in this production which will certainly entertain audiences in the forthcoming national tour.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 November 2019

Featured image: Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
STORYTIME BALLET COPPELIA The Australian Ballet. Photo Jeff Busby

Storytime Ballet—Coppélia. The Australian Ballet

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.

Sean McGrath and Dayna Booth in the Australian Ballet’s storytime Coppélia. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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.

Featured image: The Australian Ballet’s storytime Coppélia. Phopto: © Jeff Busby

STORYTIME BALLET COPPELIA The Australian Ballet. Photo Jeff Busby
Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verve. The Australian Ballet

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.

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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.

Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Scene from Filigree and Shadow. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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.

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo:Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2018

Featured image: Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Aurum. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

La Fille mal gardée. Queensland Ballet

9 August 2017. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

It is always refreshing to see a different version of a well-known work. And so it was with Queensland Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée. The version that is well-known to many Australian dance-goers is by Frederick Ashton, which Ashton made for the Royal Ballet in 1960, and which has been in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet since 1967 (although it hasn’t been shown for several years). On the other hand, Queensland Ballet, in a co-production with West Australian Ballet, staged a relatively new version by French-born, freelance choreographer Marc Ribaud, which he made in 2000 for the Nice Opera Ballet.

Ribaud has retained the basic narrative. It follows the story of Lise and Colas who wish to marry, but whose wishes are thwarted by Lise’s mother, the Widow Simone—she would prefer that Lise marry the eccentric and wealthy Alain whose greatest love is for his umbrella. But the overall tone of Ribaud’s Fille, which is set in the south of France in the 1950s, is quite different from that in the Ashton work. The choreography for Ribaud’s work is classically based but is boisterous and full of fast-paced dancing. It seems to fill the stage in an entirely different way from Ashton’s work, which seems very English in its rather gentle and considered choreographic approach. Ribaud’s Fille, at least with the cast I saw, also has strong overtones of slapstick. While Ashton gives us references to pantomime, his are much more restrained. Perhaps more subtle?

Ribaud has also retained some audience favourites from the Ashton version, albeit with changes. The famous clog dance is there although the Widow is accompanied by four village lads who tap away beside her as she goes through her clog routine. The chicken dance is also there but in a variant form. There are no dancers dressed in chicken outfits, just four male friends of Colas and Lise, dressed in jeans and giving us chicken-like gestures—chins poking forward as they move, hands with fingers spread to represent a chicken’s comb and so on. It was hilarious and very clever.

As Lise, Lina Kim with her smooth and lyrical technique was absolutely charming—it was her first performance in the role too. She showed such a variety of emotion, depending on who else was involved at any one time, and her mime scene in the last act, when she imagines what might be should she marry Colas, was just gorgeous, as was her later embarrassment when she thought Colas had seen her. Shane Wuerthner was an ardent Colas and in the opening pas de deux set the scene beautifully for what was to follow. I was impressed, in fact, with all Ribaud’s pas de deux, which often reminded me of the style of Bournonville as so often Lise and Colas danced side by side in a complementary manner rather than the man having a more supportive role. That is not to say, of course, that there were no lifts and, in fact, when they occurred they varied from soaring lifts to shapes, often with upturned feet, in which Lise’s body wrapped round or curled up to that of Colas.

Despite a little trouble with his umbrella (it broke) and his hat, Ze Wu gave a strong performance as Alain and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future—his technical range looks prodigious. The umbrella and hat problems were beautifully and professionally handled by the cast, to the extent that the Widow Simone adopted the broken umbrella and stroked it lovingly! Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers. And I enjoyed that Lina Kim gave back the way she did every time she was scolded.

Costumes by Lexi De Silva, sets by Richard Roberts and lighting by Jon Buswell provided a great background for the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Music was performed by Camerata—Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra and conducted with his usual skill by Nigel Gaynor. This Fille is a little gem and Queensland Ballet continues to show what a terrific company it has become. Bouquets to all.

(I have no images of the cast I saw, unfortunately. But below are some from another cast.)

Artists of Queensland Ballet in 'La Fille mal gardee', 2017. Photo: © David Kelly
Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Fille mal gardée, 2017. Photos: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 12 August 2017

Featured image: Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Fille mal gardée, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet

24 October 2015 (matinee), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

After my Australian Ballet brush with Beauty I was longing to see another production and so took a flying visit to Brisbane to see what Greg Horsman had done with this classic of the ballet repertoire. Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty was originally made for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011 and is being performed for the first time in Australia by Queensland Ballet. I did not see the international stars who have been engaged as special guests for the season, which did not bother me as it was the production that particularly interested me.

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty', 2015
The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, 2015

Horsman has made some small changes to the story, some of which may well be as a result of working with a medium-sized company in both New Zealand and Queensland. Perhaps the most startling change is that Catalabutte, assistant to the King, and Catalabutte’s wife, Lady Florine, are cats. This at first is a shock. But they are so beautifully, and at times humorously, worked into the story—their dance together in the last act takes the place of Puss and Boots and the White Cat—that suspending disbelief is easy. Jack Lister as Catalabutte made a strong impression throughout, but especially as he pursued the Bluebird in the wedding scene.

There is also quite a lot of mime as explanation of the story. This is not an innovation, of course, but unless well done mime passages tend to get lost in translation as it were. The dancers of Queensland Ballet have, however, been well coached in this aspect of the ballet and they have an expansive quality to their gestures. Everything is perfectly clear. Nothing drags along.

The dancing itself had some ups and downs. The corps de ballet worked nicely together for the most part and Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos stood out as the lead couple in what is usually the Garland Dance (although in this production there were no garlands). Ramos, who has a wonderful stage presence as well as a stellar technique, also danced strongly as one of the Prince’s friends in Act II. The fairies, too, danced nicely throughout, although my eyes kept turning to the Orange Fairy of Grace danced by Lisa Edwards. I loved the charm with which she performed and the delicious fluidity of her movement. She shone.

I found Yanela Piñera, Queensland Ballet’s 2015 guest principal artist, very engaging as Aurora. Piñera handled the rose adagio and the final grand pas de deux with strength and attack, but what really stood out was her joyful presence throughout. She involved herself in everything, and with everyone. She smiled, made eye contact, and used her head and arms beautifully. It was a real pleasure watching her.

Hao Bin as the Prince did not, however, always live up to my expectations. I enjoyed his acting at the start of Act II where he kept himself apart from his friends in the forest as he pondered the lack of love in his life. But once he started dancing I found him a little wooden. I wished he would move his upper body with more fluidity and use his feet more strongly.

Gary Harris’ sets are gorgeous. His interiors recall Gothic architecture with its emphasis on soaring space; his exteriors are airy, beautiful places in which the story can unfold; and the final scene with its starry background provides an especially elegant setting for the wedding of Aurora and the Prince. His work was evocatively lit by Jon Buswell.

The jarring elements for me in Harris’ design input were the costumes for the two Bluebirds, although perhaps it was the very heavy eye make-up they wore that made the costumes seem over the top compard with the general elegance of the last scene. Teri Crilly was a lovely female bluebird. Whether listening, fluttering her hands, or simply executing a step, everything was performed cleanly and with great style. Her partner, Zhi Fang, seemed very nervous and so did not really show himself to advantage.

Nigel Gaynor conducted a vibrant Queensland Symphony Orchestra where tempi, volume and orchestral colour contributed to the unfolding of the story and to the development of the characters in the ballet. The orchestra added an extra emotional layer to the performance and it was such a pleasure to be hearing this kind of collaboration between music and dance. From 2016 Gaynor will take up the position of principal conductor and music director of Queensland Ballet.

I came away from this Queensland Ballet performance loving the passion that the dancers put into their performance, despite the odd stumble or other mishap. But most of all I came away thrilled that the collaborative elements of music and design were working to enhance the dance, rather than ignoring it or trying to outdo it.

Michelle Potter, 25 October 2015