Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Book review

Kristian Fredrikson, Designer by Michelle Potter
Melbourne Books. AUD 59.95

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This book is treasure and joy. It covers the lifelong career of Wellington-born Kristian Fredrikson, designer for ballet, theatre, opera, film and television in both New Zealand and Australia. The volume is itself an achievement of fine design—superbly presented and generously illustrated, though selective in the careful interpolation of images, both drawings and performance photographs, into the text. It is an appreciative profile by an author who clearly loves the work of her subject but, resisting hagiography, has produced perceptive analysis and an enduring record of his lifetime’s work in a notoriously ephemeral performing art. Both she and the publisher are to be congratulated.

Extensive research (Potter first conducted an oral history with Fredrikson in 1993) has allowed coverage of his prolific body of work. There are frequent quotations from his own unpublished writings about ideas and work processes, which I found illuminating. The appendices provide extensive documentation, leaving the text refreshingly accessible.

There are stimulating insights and analyses of both the aesthetic and historical influences in Fredrikson’s work (Klimt is there, Rothko is there, mediaeval Sicily, 19th century New Zealand, war-time Vietnam, outback and small-town Australia are there). Potter’s invaluable commentaries will help audiences follow, in retrospect, ‘new narratives from old texts’ in the innovative reworkings of classics such as Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake (1985) for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara (1992) and his Swan Lake (2002) both for The Australian Ballet.

Tutu for Princess Odile in Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1985. The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Gift of Royal New Zealand Ballet

Long-time ballet followers in New Zealand would say they knew Fredrikson’s work well, keeping memories for decades of his sumptuous Swan Lakes, the ingenious A Servant of Two Masters, a poignant Orpheus, a searing Firebird, an enigmatic Jean [Batten], a spirited Peter Pan, atmospheric A Christmas Carol, and hilarious The Nutcracker. The book also includes his prolific output across other genres of theatre away from ballet. It is fascinating to learn of Fredrikson’s sensitive and restrained approaches to plays and films such as Hedda Gabler, with Cate Blanchett, or those with Australian Aboriginal, Vietnamese or American Indian settings … ‘away from dancers who spend their time twirling around on their toes’. We thus see a different side to the designer who always prioritised the contribution he could make to a collaborative project, rather than use it as an opportunity to primarily display his own aesthetic.       

Interviews with his ballet colleagues, especially Gray Veredon and Graeme Murphy, contribute to the portrayal of a deeply intelligent, thoughtful, private man with uncompromising respect for those trusted choreographers and directors with whom he worked most closely. The standout choreographic collaborations would have been with Murphy, Veredon and Russell Kerr, and they are quoted as appreciating the close integration of design and choreographic ideas, with a sense of movement always portrayed in the designs. Fredrikson did not dress mannequins, he dressed movers.

Dancers, too, appreciated this empathy, even when his costumes of period or character required particular weights, silhouettes and textiles. There are descriptions of his attending dance rehearsals to photograph sequences so as to be sure whatever fantasy he had in mind would also prove practical. Compromises and re-workings were sometimes required. 

Increasingly, today’s ballet practitioners seem less and less interested in the source and history of their art. It is heartening to learn how Fredrikson’s starting point for his concepts grew out of impeccable historical research. Since my own work and interests lie in Renaissance and Baroque dance and related arts, I was pleased to copy out a passage from his own words, about transforming, or inventing a historical period:

The problem is most of us don’t know true period. We look at a Watteau painting and we say, ‘Oh that’s how they dressed in Watteau’s time.’ Well they didn’t. Watteau made up his own people. We look at Rembrandt and say, ‘That’s how they dressed in Rembrandt’s day.’ They did not. Rembrandt created costumes for them… Our understanding of the past is so unreal that even if I do the real history, it’s surreal. And I suppose that’s what I do. I go towards the real history and that seems extraordinary.

I am now very happy to have this quote as a fridge magnet in my kitchen. It seems to echo the equally interesting and challenging practice of a writer using historical or autobiographical fiction as an imaginative way of telling a ‘true’ story.

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

Chapter 6, New Zealand Impressions, has a fabulous full-page image of Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Jon Trimmer is portrayed as the seductively beautiful pirate, Peter Pan squatting at his feet is Everyboy—with a somewhat perplexed expression on his face, wondering why anyone would want to leave childhood and become an adult. The study for the Angel of Death in Murphy’s Orpheus is chillingly beautiful. The priceless comic play of Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi and Jon Trimmer as Pantalone in Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters is evidence of one of the best productions RNZB ever staged.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not identified. Courtesy Arthur Turnbull LIbrary, Wellington, New Zealand.

But it is the two quietly dramatic photographs from Veredon’s Tell me a Tale that could slow your breathing. The choreography tells a particular story, though it could have been the story of many a family. The cast are early European settlers arriving in New Zealand, meeting and interacting with Maori people. The young pakeha boy befriending a Maori girl brings forth a furious haka from her brother—performed by the much admired (and then much missed ) Warren Douglas. This was the most convincing representation of haka on a ballet stage I have seen in six decades of watching a range of attempts.  What a sorry business that Tale was never restaged by RNZB, and it’s a safe if sad bet it is never likely to be—even though the original cast are around and could still be involved, and indeed the choreographer, one of New Zealand’s finest dance-makers, is still actively staging his works in Europe. I treasure these fine photographs of a talisman work from RNZB ‘s early repertoire, gone but not forgotten. It belongs here in New Zealand, exists nowhere else, and should be neither gone nor forgotten.     

The eighth and final chapter ‘The Ultimate Ballet: Swan Lake’ is an insightful comparison of  approaches taken to this classic work, tracing the five different productions Fredrikson worked on. There are both similar and contrasting elements within those stagings—revealing the nature of von Rothbart’s evil, learning that Odette’s mother’s tears created the lake that her daughter will drown in, and the possibility of lovers separated by death though reuniting in an afterlife. The themes of love, treachery and loyalty are the same as those we live by, so even quite different settings in any production of calibre are as close to home as we choose to invite them.  

You could call this an illustrated biography of the life’s work of a totally committed theatre designer. His life was his work, and the book emulates the man. There is no gossip, no bodice-ripping tell-all of a private life, no imposed psychoanalysis, and Alleluia to that I say. If you want to know who Kristian Fredrikson was and what was important to him, read his work. Read this book.

Kristian Fredrikson with costumes for Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photo: © Ross Giblin. Courtesy Stuff/The Evening Post

Jennifer Shennan, 18 August 2020

Featured image: Stephen McTaggart and Kerry-Anne Gilberd in a scene from Gray Veredon’s Tell Me a Tale (detail). Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Collection of Gray Veredon

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Cinderella' 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cinderella. The Australian Ballet. 2020 Digital Season

Like most arts companies around the world, the Australian Ballet is offering audiences a streaming service during the COVID-19 lockdown. Each performance is available for a short time only, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, first seen in Australia in 2013, is the second offering on the program. The cast is led by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in a partnership that is both moving and elegant. The performance was filmed in Brisbane in 2016.*

This Cinderella is not the usual take on the old fairy tale, although the characters from that fairy tale are present, albeit often in something of a new guise. For the most part the story also follows the narrative of a young girl being brought up in less than agreeable circumstances who finds love after attending a ball, and who then goes through the process of waiting for her Prince to find her after she leaves the ball in a hurry.

The unusual characteristics of Ratmansky’s version were made all the more powerful given that I had, the day before, watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella created originally for the New Zealand company in 2007. Hampson’s production had some lovely moments—a moving prologue, for example, in which we witnessed a young Cinderella at her mother’s funeral. It set a context for the rest of the story. There were some exceptional performances too including Jon Trimmer’s brilliant portrayal of the Royal Shoemaker who attempts to discover the inherent qualities of the shoe left behind at the ball by Cinderella.

But choreographically Hampson’s work was not especially inventive and fell within a very traditional balletic mode. Ratmansky’s choreography was still classically based but there was a distinctive touch to it. For a start, there were fewer easily recognisable classroom-style steps, and a much freer use of the arms and upper body.

In addition to this distinctive choreographic vocabulary, I was struck in particular by Ratmansky’s approach to the relationship between his vocabulary and Prokofiev’s score. Watching his choreography made the score sound quite different from what I had heard while watching the Hampson production. Ratmansky appeared to be strongly motivated by the music, more so than Hampson it seemed to me, and created steps specifically to match passages, even notes, in the score. This is not to say that Hampson’s choreography was unmusical, just that for Ratmansky music seemed to be the major force in the development of his movement.

I have reviewed the Ratmansky Cinderella elsewhere on this website so don’t intend to go further into the production. Here is a link to my original review. There is a place for both a traditional production, such as Hampson gives us, and a production that moves in a different direction. The same holds for Nutcracker, Swan Lake and others of the classics. But I loved being able to see the Hampson and the Ratmansky Cinderella side by side. It opened my eyes to an aspect of Ratmansky’s work that I hadn’t noticed in such depth before.

Michelle Potter, 23 April 2020

*For copyright reasons the Australian Ballet’s streamed performances are available to viewers in Australia only.

Featured image: Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters prepare for the ball in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. The Australia Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Cinderella' 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Russell Kerr Lecture, February 2020

by Jennifer Shennan

In 2018, in Wellington, an annual series named the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts was established to honour the celebrated and loved father figure of ballet in New Zealand. [The series’ title was borrowed from the Lincoln Kirstein lecture in Ballet & Related Arts annually offered at New York University. We were particularly inspired by their 2016 presentation by Ian Bostridge on Song & Dance ... it’s online, and well worth listening to].

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

In 2018 our inaugural lecture was delivered by Dr Michelle Potter, dance historian and writer from Canberra, who gave an insightful profile of the life and work of costume and set-designer Kristian Fredrikson, local Wellington boy made good, with a prolific career both in New Zealand and Australia. (The book resulting from Michelle’s many years of research is to be published by Melbourne Books, in July/August 2020).

Each of our sessions opens with a cameo dance performance which in 2018 was Loughlan Prior’s Lark, a tightly-stitched witty duet, a bespoke choreography for Jon Trimmer (longstanding colleague of Fredrikson) and William Fitzgerald—the older dancer savouring decades of memories and moves, the younger dancer questing to catch them. Piano accompaniment (Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Borodin ) was by Dr Hamish Robb, and Beth Chen, members of staff at Te Koki/New Zealand School of Music, which is the venue  for the event. 

In 2019, Dr Ian Lochhead’s account of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939, opened with the poignant Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby from New Zealand School of Dance—and The Swan by Abigail Boyle, until recently leading artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet. Accompaniment was by Hamish Robb, piano, and Inbal Megiddo, cellist. Ian is planning to publish a longer article to be developed from his script. 

On 9 February 2020, I delivered the third lecture: Douglas Wright—dance-maker, time-keeper, meteor. Tracing metaphors in the work of dancer, choreographer, writer Douglas Wright, 1956–2018.

The opening dance performed was a menuet danced by Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing, to menuets 1 & 2 from the Partita no.1, J. S. Bach, played by Hamish Robb. The lecture began with my story of an encounter with Wright:

Douglas Wright pressed me to show him how the technique and music of baroque dance worked, sensing it as a seeding ground for much of ballet’s vocabulary. His dance intelligence and curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever encountered, so we explored the different accents and interactions that give character to a beguiling menuet, cheerful bourrée, courageous chaconne, flirtatious gavotte, madcap passepied, saucy gigue, majestic courante, tender sarabande.

Douglas liked their effects of distilled emotion, so to remember that, and him, the session opened with a menuet. Typically composed in pairs, the first, major, the second, minor, then back to the major, menuets are in triple-time, stepped in counter-rhythm to the music (2 + 4 against 3 + 3), with further asymmetry between phrase lengths. A subtle pull between movement and music—we want to see resolved, to see how two things can become one.

The handhold central to its ‘narrative’—right, then left, then both—signals a greeting, a conversation, a friendship. We know how to dance a menuet thanks to notation by English dancing master Kellom Tomlinson. The earliest European dance resource in New Zealand is a 300 year old ms. workbook by the same Tomlinson, gifted to the Alexander Turnbull Library through the generosity of the Trimmer family.

Our plan was that Jon Trimmer would dance with Anne Rowse, but once rehearsing, it became clear that Jon’s long-standing ankle injury would prevent him from enjoying the experience. The initial injury from years back didn’t stop him dancing then but he has carried it ever since, a price that dancers often pay. Keith McEwing stepped up to take Anne’s hand on the upbeat, because passing the baton is what dancers do.   

In the following lecture I read a number of excerpts from Douglas’ writings, what he called ‘autobiographical fiction’, Ghost Dance (Penguin 2004) and Terra Incognito (Penguin 2006), and from his two volumes of poems, published by Steele Roberts, Laughing Mirror and Cactusfear. Video illustrations were sourced from the documentary Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley in 2003. The film is an award-winning profile of the work and life of arguably New Zealand’s leading performer and dance-maker, a legend in his lifetime whose astonishingly prolific output will be remembered for decades to come. Haunting Douglas is available on Vimeo, or for purchase from Spasifik Films, and is highly recommended viewing.

Planning is already under way for the next lecture in the series which will be held on Sunday 10 February 2021, with details of topic and presenter to be confirmed.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 February 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Russell Kerr, 2007

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

2019–Dance Highlights from New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

Happy New Year to all readers of ‘On Dancing’—even though the weeks are passing, the year still feels new … but in saying that, might I add that we have all been following the numerous stories of courage and heartbreak as the summer fires in Australia have been taking such a terrible toll in the loss of life, and wreaking havoc to homes and livelihoods. Kia kaha. Find and take courage.

In reading Michelle’s highlights of her year, it is clear that Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liasons for Queensland Ballet was a standout. How disappointing that the earlier path which was set with his ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet, was not continued with this project. The team of Scarlett, Tracy Grant Lord in design and Nigel Gaynor’s truly wonderful amalgam of Mendelssohn’s score gave our company one of the very best works ever in its repertoire. That notion of collaboration between the companies had so much promise, both in terms of productions but also the possibilities of dancer exchange. All the ways that New Zealand can exchange and strengthen dance ties with Australia make sound common sense from artistic, economic and pedagogic points of view, and could only enhance international awareness of dance identity in our part of the world.

Outstanding memories of 2019 here in Wellington started with the interesting residency of Michael Keegan-Dolan and his ensemble of dancers, working also with local students or free-lance dancers as he began preparations towards the season of Mam, for the International Arts Festival this March. Alex Leonhartsberger in the cast is as compelling a performer as ever, and we welcomed echoes of Loch na h’Eala, the inspired Gaelic take on Swan Lake from this company back in our 2018 festival.

Other 2019 memories would include Andrea Schermoly’s Stand to Reason in an RNZB season; Victoria Columbus’ Fibonacci Series in NZDance Company season; the fresh setting for Orbiculus—NZSchool of Dance choreographic season; Sarah Foster-Sproull’s Orchids at Circa Theatre. Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel for RNZB showed him in command of all the forces needed for a full-length work and the choreographer/composer collaboration with Claire Cowan worked particularly well. Images of Paul Mathews in his role as The Witch remain impressive.

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

Another performance that lingers in the memory was that by NZSD student Rench Soriano, in Five Variations on a Theme, in their Graduation program. His career, unfortunately not local, will be one to watch. On that same program Raewyn Hill’s choreography Carnival.4, had a very strong presence. It is heartening to see earlier graduates from the School returning to mount works in the mature stages of their careers.

If I must choose my single personal highlight, it would be the last of the year—Meeting Karpovsky—the play by Helen Moulder and Jon Trimmer. Just the two of them in the cast but between them they offer a poignant and profound depth-sounding of what dance can be and mean to an audience. The work continues to hold its power and will not be forgotten by those who were drawn in to its mystery and alchemy.

The upcoming Festival will have a broad dance program, with high expectations for the Keegan-Dolan work, as well as the visiting Lyon Ballet in Trois Grandes Fugues—(three distinct choreographies to the same music, an intriguing idea) and Lucy Marinkovich’s Strasbourg 1518.

Happy New Year to all.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 January 2020

Featured image: Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from Petrouchka in Meeting Karpovsky. Willow Productions, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Meeting Karpovsky. Willow Productions

6–16 November 2019, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Meeting Karpovsky was created by Helen Moulder, Sue Rider and Sir Jon Trimmer, and was performed by Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Now here’s something different—a play about the ballet. Sylvia, an older woman living alone, is hanging onto the memories of the 127 times in her life she has seen the celebrated ballet dancer, Alexander Karpovsky, in performance. She uses those memories, and the sorting of her daughter Anna’s possessions that are cluttered in the attic, to keep the surface of each day moving along, and to fill her slow quiet nights.

Apart from the many boxes of Anna’s possessions, the set features posters of Karpovsky in his roles as Petrouchka, Albrecht, Widow Simone and Drosselmeyer. Sylvia converses with each character in turn, venting her woes and frustrations, but hastening to assure herself and us that she is in control, of course she is in control, why would she not be in control, the painful ankle is better some days than others, and she thinks the frozen shoulder is coming right, there’s food in the sparse pantry, she’ll probably settle for a baked potato with a sprinkle of cheese and chives for her supper tonight, or two baked potatoes perhaps, and it’s true cream cheese is very nice with baked potatoes but she thinks she might be out of cream cheese so never mind, just the cheddar and chives will do nicely.

Helen Moulder (Sylvia) and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) take tea together. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

In haunting evocations of the personality that each ballet character represents in the original choreographies, Sylvia wants to understand what happened to them, why, what it meant, what happened next?  She searches for what she and the characters might have in common experience—’Petrouchka, you’re a puppet, but who is pulling your strings? Albrecht, how could you have let Giselle die and then became a wili? Widow Simone, I’ll bet you regret leaving your daughter so badly guarded. Drosselmeyer, what’s the use of your feeble magic wand if you can’t use it to put right the bad things that happen to people?’

Karpovsky’s spectre visits Sylvia in a series of vignettes, but it transpires he’s more guardian angel than ghost. These are not nostalgic remnants of performance memories fluttering about, but more like threads from a string of prayer flags loosed into the wind. Should Sylvia catch them or let them go? Both or neither? Collect them and weave them back together again, into a tablecloth for an afternoon tea-party, say?

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) dance together. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

No one else I know bothers to think about the libretti and narrative thrust of ballets in this way. Rider, Moulder, Trimmer, Sylvia and Karpovsky do, and invite us to follow their lead and do likewise. The effect is astonishing—strange yet familiar, secret yet shared, a duty of care, a literature of narratives salvaged from the archive of performances forgotten, choreographies abandoned, hopes postponed, dreams denied. How many of the ballets you have ever danced in, or seen performed, have anything to do with the life you or your family have lived?

The poignancy of these questions, to which there are no ready responses, is beyond words by the following day, so we’ll just have to accept that as the ephemeral nature of an enduring art, as food for thought, and swiftly book to go back for another performance.

Besides, there are too many spoiler alerts needed. A knife, a yelp of pain from an audience member taken totally unawares, a distant siren in the following silence—police? ambulance? (now, that can’t have been a planned sound effect of the play. It must be a sign from the dark night outside that what’s going on inside the theatre is another but related reality). 

This production won the Listener Best Play of the Year at its premiere season, and the lambent Helen Moulder, an exquisitely musical performer, won the Chapmann Trip Best Actress of the Year award. It’s easy to see why. 

That Jon Trimmer has just celebrated his 80th birthday only adds to the wonder of his totally focused performance. He is required to speak just one word the whole evening, but for the rest he moves with the mana, memory, muscles, and mercurial mind of a genius of dance and theatre. He mimes, demonstrates and teaches Sylvia little fragments from the ballets—’step and point, incline, epaulement … gallop and turn … scuff and shuffle’—that she might do the clog dance from La Fille Mal Gardée, or step through the throbbing of Giselle’s pain and of the sorrowing wilis, or pay attention to the conjuring tricks of Drosslemeyer. But it’s Trimmer’s recreation of the Booth and Cell scenes from Petrouchka that will ache you, break you and mend you again. You’d better remember it because you won’t ever see the like again.

Helen Moulder (Sylvia) and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) recreate a moment from Petrouchka. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

From the opening sounds of a train hurtling by at speed (where might that railway journey be headed?) to the softest strains of Sylvia’s remembered lullaby, ‘Shine little glowworm, glimmer’,there are hints of the several griefs that are layered into her life, and we are carried by a spellbinding 90 minutes of faultless performances by Helen Moulder and Jon Trimmer, both of them impeccably timed and modulated. It  cadences in a never-to-be forgotten scene of redemption. I feel sorry for people who don’t live in Wellington and can’t get to one of the remaining performances this week.

Jennifer Shennan, 11 November 2019

Featured image: Helen Moulder (Sylvia) watches as Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) performs as Drosselmeyer. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Sir Jon Trimmer in open conversation with Garry Trinder

by Jennifer Shennan
9 July 2019. New Zealand School of Dance         

An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.

The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.

Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, The Ragtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Sir Jon Trimmer (left) as Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in Gray Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not known

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.

We should tell our grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good place.

The clearly important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say Thank You.

Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’

Garry Trinder (right) asks a question of Sir Jon Trimmer. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019.

‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.

The sagas of company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.

Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’

Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’

Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.

A friend in the audience commented later—’One thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his weight in gold.

There are more stories to be found in Jon’s recently published memoir, Why Dance?and details of the Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.

Jon has also explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and truckloads of performance memories.

Also apparent is a deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’

Bill Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T. perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of love, ownership and appreciation.’

Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.

So what did Jonty do? He joined in the applause of course.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019

Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographic Series

1-2 March 2019, Opera House Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program to open 2019 has four new and contrasting works that will appeal to audiences in different ways. The dancers, as always, give their all, but the production needs to settle down yet, and the lighting effects be reduced by perhaps 50%, if it is to source the power of theatre.

Hine the first work, by Moss Paterson, opens with a strongly rendered haka fronted by males, but the following sequence for females, with the unexpected choices of pointe shoes and scantily clad dancers, is a challenge to reconcile with the evocation of a whare whakairo. The first woman in Maori mythology, Hine ahu one, has been a number of times choreographed—(I think of Louise Potiki Bryant, of Kelly Nash, and of Merenia Gray’s works, and believe they could all be considered for future possible restagings). I found the back projections for this Hine often distracting, and the aural overload a challenge. I am no fan of strobe light in the theatre at the best of times, believing it belongs to the rock concert stage or the disco bar, and often weakens the development of form in a choreography. So Hine was for me, with its various quotes from other dances we have seen recently, a work in progress.

Y(It is decades since this company performed it, but no-one forgets how Gray Veredon harnessed the ihi, wehi and wana of haka into his classic cameo work, Tell Me A Tale. Anyone wishing to choreograph Te Ao Maori onto a ballet stage needs to study that work, and Veredon, a pioneering member of this Company, would be willing to help—right now though he is impressively occupied with staging a new full-length commission at Polish National Ballet. One could also consider bringing back to their home company some of our other ex-pat choreographers and teachers who have made strong careers abroad—Cameron McMillan, Mark Baldwin, Andrew Simmons, Martin James and Patricia Rianne come to mind).

The second work is by James O’Hara, The Sky Is Not So Different From Us, Perhaps… with musician Anita Clark on stage. The work has a layered movement texture I found cumulatively mesmerising. Ceaseless pulses and undulations hint at the physics inside a human body—the rhythms of breathing and of blood circulating, as measures of life, except for one sad Pierrot figure standing in catatonic contrast until the violin vibrations thaw her out. The ever-repeating tape-loop of violin and vocals adds to the work’s atmosphere and mystery. Multi-layered costumes echo the choreographic theme, though for some of them, less would be more (and why a very tall man would wear a constricting mid-calf pink skirt I found impossible to fathom). The best of this work is very good indeed.

(left) Mayu Tanigaito in The ground beneath our feet; (right) Abigail Boyle in Artemis rising, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. All photos: © Stephen A’Court

Shaun James Kelly’s work, The Ground Beneath our Feet, is a winner. He summons the airborne energy and élan we have always welcomed from the dancers in our Company, whatever the chosen choreographic style or aesthetic. I personally prefer to hear Bach in the scores as left to us, so the doctored treatment of the Violin Concerto, while you can do it, did not seem to me to add anything new. A galvanising pleasure though to see the commitment between partners within each dancing couple. The total frisson of the evening for me was Mayu Tanigaito. The prodigious technique of this dancer allows her to transform to a hummingbird, a diving swallow, a fairy tern. That she can do it all and more, and flash a smile the while, puts her in a class of her own. (Many of us have long wished that the superb full-length work Madame Butterfly, by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, and stunning design by Peter Farmer, could be re-staged from our Company’s strong and richly defined repertoire, and the title role offered to this dancer as a vehicle for her talent).

This season marks the retirement, after 13 stalwart years dancing, of Abigail Boyle, a much loved and highly versatile performer with classical, dramatic and comic abilities in spades. The work Artemis Rising, choreographed for her by Sarah Foster-Sproull, was effectively a solo, with other dancers as a shadow chorus. It leaves some striking images for us to savour, and acts as tribute to Abigail’s performing, and a blessing on her future career transition (she plans to develop a teaching and coaching career).

The purest combination of technique, phrasing and line was to be seen whenever watching Abigail in class in the studio—an experience I will treasure to the end of my days. Many know and love this dancer, and wish her the very best for the coming years. (Readers may care to read the fine interview with Bess Manson published in The Dominion Post, 2 March 2019, and available online at www.stuff.co.nz—Dancer Abigail Boyle, Breaking through the fourth wall).She has been given a spirited and fitting farewell.

A recent Company newsletter advised that they are also currently considering how to honour the significant contribution to ballet and theatre in New Zealand of Sir Jon Trimmer who gave his retirement performance late last year. If that turns out to be an 80th Birthday Benefit Gala in September, say, one can imagine the Opera House dome needing to be opened to let out the tsunami of excitement and gratitude that New Zealanders would want to show him by way of salute and thanks for the legendary 60+ years career with this Company. Kia ora rawa atu, he totara nui o te ao kanikani o Aotearoa. I nga ra o mua, i nga ra inaianeihe wiri mo he takahia taonga enei. Tena koe, e hoa.

Jennifer Shennan, 2 March 2019

Featured image:Caroline Wiley in The sky is not so different from us … perhaps. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Dance diary. Feburary 2018

  • Russell Kerr Lecture

In February I had the pleasure, and honour of presenting the inaugural Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet and the Related Arts in Wellington, New Zealand. I spoke about the life and career of Wellington-born designer Kristian Fredrikson, of whom New Zealanders are rightly proud (as indeed are we Australians).

The lecture was made possible by a fund, recently established by a group of New Zealanders, to honour Russell Kerr, artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (as it was initially called before receiving its Royal Charter) from 1962 to 1968. Kerr went on to hold many significant positions in the dance world and to choreograph many works for Royal New Zealand Ballet, including acclaimed productions with designs by Fredrikson of Swan Lake (1996), Peter Pan (1999) and A Christmas Carol (2001). The Russell Kerr Lecture will be offered annually for five years and plans are moving ahead for the 2019 lecture, which will be delivered by Dr Ian Lochhead.

The 2018 lecture was preceded by a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Lark, a short but moving work by Loughlan Prior featuring Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald. Both dancers gave an exceptional performance. Live music was provided by Hamish Robb and Beth Chen from the New Zealand School of Music. Here is what Jennifer Shennan wrote about Lark last year on this website:

Lark, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, of Royal New Zealand Ballet, performed by Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald, proved a masterwork. There’s little surprise in that since Prior has already earned considerable choreographic kudos. 78 year-old Trimmer’s presence on stage, before he even moves a muscles, reeks with the authenticity of a performer who deeply knows how dance works. Fitzgerald moves with a calm clarity that makes virtuosity seem effortless, and his elevation is something to savour. Suffice to say this piece portraying an older dancer as he sifts memories of dances past, alongside a younger dancer’s questing after the kinds of things that will bring meaning to his future performances, had a poignancy to treasure. (Jennifer Shennan)

See this link for a podcast from Radio New Zealand in which presenter Lynn Freeman and I talked about Fredrikson’s career. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to have the spelling of Fredrikson’s name corrected on the RNZ web page.

  • The Piano, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Piano, with choreography by Jiri Bubenicek, opened late in February in Wellington. Stay tuned for Jennifer Shennan’s review.

(l-r) Hazel Couper, Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'The Piano', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

(l-r) Hazel Couper, Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in The Piano, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

  • Press for February 2018

Critics survey 2017. Dance Australia, February/March 2018, pp. 31–32. See this link for a PDF version of my selections.

Featured image: Follow this link for a PDF copy of the lecture handout.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2018

Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 'Lark' from 'whY Cromozone'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

whY Chromozone. Tempo Dance Festival

7 October 2017, Q Theatre, Auckland.

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Tempo Dance Festival has always had a program slot, Y Chromozone, for an exclusively male line-up of choreographers and dancers to do their thing.

I remember it in previous years being overlong, over compered, and in need of more insightful programme notes—but as one who thinks gender has little to do with choreographic vision anyway, I was always going to be hard to convince of the concept. (I know, I know, I’m in a minority here, but I am a member of many minority groups and that is no bother to me, per se). OK, let’s to the dance…

The first listed item did not happen, but there was no announcement to warn us of that. That’s a serious issue for a reviewer working in the dark through a program of 13 separate items without interval. I don’t usually take notes during a performance but prefer to remember what is memorable, consulting the program before and after. For that to work, you don’t want the second item playing as the first.

That said, the opener was stunning—Not, choreographed and performed by Oliver Carruthers, to music Tourists by Nicolas Jaar. He was carried onstage in a twisted knot which then unfolded, limb by twist, to open finally into the straight line of his body. A secure mover this one, from Unitec.

Asmodeus, choreographed and performed by Jay Clement (to Arsonist’s Lullaby by Hosier), a gymnast harnessing extraordinary strength and balance. He spent most of the dance upside down, on the palm of one hand, legs airborne, slowly rotating on top of three poles, in a delicious slow-motion dance that held tight to its music, thus allowing poetry to emerge from its power.

Enough, choreographed by val smith, was performed by two great wild things swathed in 1000 shaggy sheepskins. They edged on walking sticks hesitantly and painfully from downstage left to upstage right. About mid-stage they rolled over each other, and one great monster pulled apart to become two—so I guess you could say they sprogged. They then continued the pilgrimage across the stage. These were creatures that Maurice Sendak might have designed. Music is identified as ‘anonymous vaporwave track pirated from a gay porn site’. Well, they said it. The whole strange hilarious thing was possibly a metaphor, depending on what you want from your metaphors.

Me, Myself But Why? choreographed by Stephen Hidalgo, performed by Stephen Hidalgo and Stephen Hidalgo. This screen-to-stage conversation between ‘himselves’ as screen figure and on-stage dancer was played with brilliant timing and a sharp dry wit that had us in stitches. Lucky this isn’t a competition as we’ve had four winners already and we’re not even a third of the way through the program.

This is a thing, choreographed and performed by Connor Masseurs, to Freefallin Dreams by Saje, was a contemplative solo at times reminiscent of a breakdancing insect, at other times a beguiling man. No program note to profile the dancer, just an obtuse paragraph that did no justice to the interesting textures of the very well-shaped dance we saw.

Dane Head, a 14 year old pupil of Allan Barry at Mt. Eden Ballet Academy, performed the peasant pas male variation from Giselle. His impressively clean technique and sound musicality, coupled with his obvious delight in dancing, made for a pleasant experience for him and us, both.

Outcast by Fenjay Sapon was a quartet of Unitec dancers often pitching one against three. Confident in their strength and their ability to build atmosphere, their use of rhythms and canon added interesting depth to this piece.

Liberate-He, by Earl de Castro was a thrust of waacking and voguing, tight jeans and high heels, all pitch perfect.

Joe Carvalho performed a mesmerising solo on an acrobatic circus apparatus, the cyr wheel. Harnessed through music, A Little Walk to Nowhere by Brain Damage, this performance brought Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, after waiting 530 years in a manuscript, to spend time with us. This was a miracle of true proportion and conversation with gravity. Carvalho’s heroic performance was delivered with a modesty that will not easily be forgotten

Lark, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, of Royal New Zealand Ballet, performed by Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald, proved a masterwork. There’s little surprise in that since Prior has already earned considerable choreographic kudos. 78 year-old Trimmer’s presence on stage, before he even moves a muscles, reeks with the authenticity of a performer who deeply knows how dance works. Fitzgerald moves with a calm clarity that makes virtuosity seem effortless, and his elevation is something to savour. Suffice to say this piece portraying an older dancer as he sifts memories of dances past, alongside a younger dancer’s questing after the kinds of things that will bring meaning to his future performances, had a poignancy to treasure.

Blue Bird, by Christopher Olwage, has recently been performed as part of Viennese Pride celebrations in Austria and we can be sure it received the same audience appreciation there as here. To Young and Beautiful by Lana Del Ray, the dancer en pointe and with costume of blue feathers that were shed in stages, suggested a cabaret twilight of happiness tinged with yearning.

The final slot, Idco Next Generation—Swagganauts, is a team of nine young Hip Hop dancers who have all the cut and thrust of seasoned street dance. Precision, speed, agility, cool, and a cap with the peak going down the back are all stitched in place so’s you couldn’t slip a knife between the moves. Josh Cesan should take credit for this spirited finale.

Jennifer Shennan, 15 October 2017

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in Lark from whY Cromozone. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing

Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 'Lark' from 'whY Cromozone'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing