The best of everything to those who have followed this website over the past year. Thank you for your loyalty. And here’s hoping that 2021 will be one that is filled with dance, even live dance perhaps? Stay safe and healthy.
Highlights of 2020 (on and off stage)
I was very fortunate to see the opening night performance of Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince. It had a short run in Brisbane in February but showings elsewhere were cancelled due to the pandemic. I really would like to see it again as there was a lot there that needed a second look. I hope we will see it again, given that the leadership of the Australian Ballet has changed.
By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake Marchin which, over several weekends in August, eight dancers, accompanied by two musicians, made their way around Canberra’s three lakes. They paused briefly on occasions to engage with each other and with the rather surprised audience of joggers, bike riders and so on who were also using the lakeside for exercise. Lake March won Plevey a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in December. The citation read:
For courageously working within the restrictive conditions generated by COVID-19 to bring an innovative and entertaining production of dance and live music, presented in several outdoor venues, to an audience of dance goers and the wider Canberra community. Alison Plevey for Lake March.
In October we were able to venture into the theatre for a QL2 Dance program featuring a work called Sympathetic Monsters by Jack Ziesing. It was an absorbing work in terms of its choreographic structure and in its thematic content.
Of course I watched many streamed performances over the course of 2020. It was more than interesting to see close-up images of faces and expressions and also details of costume. Nothing can replace a live performance but I derived much pleasure from streamed performances, especially from companies I wouldn’t normally see. Borrowed Light from Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company in collaboration with Boston Camerata was perhaps the most outstanding example. I was transfixed by this performance and have Jacob’s Pillow to thank for streaming it as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival 2020.
Sunil Kothari (1933–2020). Indian dance critic
I was saddened to hear of the death of Indian dance writer Sunil Kothari from complications of COVID-19. He visited Australia on a number of occasions and I recall a talk he gave in Canberra for the Canberra Critics’ Circle, several years ago now. He was a passionate advocate for dance and was a mentor to Padma Menon, who performed extensively in Canberra during the 1990s.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer featured as the ‘Publishing Spotlight’ in the Summer 2020–2021 edition of the newsletter of the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The review was written by Friends Committee Member and well known Canberra-based arts and craft specialist, Meredith Hinchliffe. Follow this link to read the review.
This month’s dance diary has an eclectic mix of news about dance from across the globe. I am beginning with a cry for help from a New Zealand initiative, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, led by Turid Revfeim, dancer, teacher, coach, mentor, director across many dance organisations. I am moved to do this as a result of two crowd funding projects I initiated when I was in a similar position and needed an injection of funds to help with the production of my recent Kristian Fredrikson book. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the arts community. It made such a difference to what my book looked like and I will forever be grateful.
Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Ballet Collective Aotearoa was unsuccessful in its application to Creative New Zealand for funding to take its project, Subtle Dances, to Auckland and Dunedin in early 2021. The group has secured performances at the arts festivals at those two New Zealand cities. BCA’s line-up for Subtle Dances brings together a great mix of experienced professional dancers and recent graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance. They will perform new works by Cameron McMillan, Loughlan Prior and Sarah Knox.
For my Australia readers, Prior has strong Australian connections, having been born in Melbourne and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Then, Cameron McMillan, a New Zealander by birth, trained at the Australian Ballet School and has danced with Australian Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. And, dancing in the program will be William Fitzgerald who was brought up in Canberra, attended Radford College and has been a guest dance teacher there, and studied dance in Canberra with Kim Harvey.
The campaign to raise money for Turid Revfeim’s exceptional venture is via the New Zealand organisation, Boosted. See this link to contribute. See more on the BCA website.
Interconnect. Liz Lea Productions
Liz Lea’s Interconnect was presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra Festival and focused on connections between India and Canberra. The idea took inspiration from the designers of the city of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, and from the fact that Walter Burley Griffin spent his last years in India where he died in Lucknow in 1937. As a result, the program featured a cross section of dance styles from Apsaras Arts Canberra, the Sadhanalaya School of Arts and several exponents of Western contemporary styles.
Interconnect was shown at Gorman Arts Centre in a space that was previously an art gallery. Physical distancing was observed, as we have come to expect. I enjoyed the through-line of humour that Lea is able to inject into all her works, including Interconnect. I was also taken by a short interlude called Connect in which Lea danced to live music played on electric guitar by Shane Hogan, and which featured on film in the background a line drawing of changing patterns created by Andrea McCuaig. Multiple connections there!
Choreographer Gray Veredon has put together a new website set out in several parts under the headings ‘The Challenge’, ‘New Ways in Set Design’, and ‘Influences and Masters’. His themes are developed using as background his recent work in Poland,A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Gray Veredon’s website can be viewed at this link.
Jean Stewart, whose dance photographs I have used many times on this website, is the subject of a short video put together by the State Library of Victoria. Jean died in 2017 and donated her archive to the SLV. Here is the link to video. And below are two of my favourite photographs from other sources. I can’t get over the costumes in the background of the Coppélia shot! Is that Act II?
Other Stewart favourites appear in the brief tribute I wrote back in 2017.
Jacob’s Pillow fire
Devastating and heartbreaking news came from Jacob’s Pillow during November. Its Doris Duke Theatre was burnt to the ground.
Nina Popova, Russian born dancer who danced in Australia during the third Ballets Russes tour in 1939-1940, died in Florida in August 2020. I was especially saddened to learn that her death was a result of COVID-19.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More comments and reviews
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer was ‘Highly Recommended’ on the Summer Reading Guide in its ‘Biography’ category.
Mention of it also appeared on the Australian Ballet’s site, Behind Ballet, Issue # 252 of 18 November 2020 with the following text:
KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON, DESIGNER A lavish new book by historian and curator Michelle Potter takes us inside the fascinating world of Fredrikson, whose rich and inventive designs grace so many of our productions. MORE INFO
I was also thrilled to receive just recently a message from Amitava Sarkar, whose photographs from Stanton Welch’s Pecos and Swan Lake for Houston Ballet are a magnificent addition to the book. He wrote: ‘Congratulations. What a worthwhile project in this area of minimal research.‘ He is absolutely right that design for the stage is an area of minimal research! Let’s hope it doesn’t always remain that way.
I recently had the opportunity to write a short article about Melbourne-based dancer and choreographer Jack Riley for The Canberra Times, my first piece of writing for this particular outlet in 50 weeks given certain changes that have happened to performing arts writing lately. My story had to have a particular focus and so I was not able to mention the commission Riley had from the University of Melbourne last year, which involved a trip to Florence, Italy, where he made a work called Duplex. The Canberra Times used neither the headshot nor an image from Florence, both of which were sent to me by Riley. But the Florence shot was so striking I have used it as the featured image for this month’s dance diary. A PDF of the story published in The Canberra Times is available at the end of this post. See ‘Press for October 2020’.
Jan Pinkerton (1963–2020)
I only recently heard the sad news that Jan Pinkerton, dancer and choreographer, had died in August. She performed with Sydney Dance Company, Australian Choreographic Ensemble (as a founding member), and Bangarra Dance Theatre. The eulogy at the funeral service was given by Lynn Ralph, general manager of Sydney Dance Company 1985–1991 and a long-term friend of Pinkerton. In it she told us the role Jan Pinkerton most liked performing was Act II of Graeme Murphy’s Nearly Beloved. I found the image below in the National Library’s collection and, in lieu of a detailed obituary, I am including it in this month’s dance diary.
Lynn Ralph’s eulogy is a moving one and contains words from Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon as well as from Stephen Page. The funeral service was recorded and is available online.
Australian Dance Awards
The short lists for the Australian Dance Awards for 2018 and 2019, with the exception of the awards for Lifetime Achievement, have been released. The winners will be announced at a specially filmed event in December. Stay tuned for more. The short lists are available at this link.
Marge Champion (1919–2020)
Marge Champion, dancer and actor in Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, and inspiration to many over the years, has died in Los Angeles at the age of 101. I discovered that she had died via Norton Owen who posted the image below on his Facebook page.
In his brief comment about the relationship he had with her I found out one more thing about the Jacob’s Pillow site. Blake’s Barn, home of the incredible Jacob’s Pillow Archives, was named after Marge Champion’s son, Blake. The building’s donor was Marge Champion. She is seen in the video clip below dancing with her husband Gower Champion in the final scene from Lovely to Look At.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
Unity Books in Wellington hosted a lunchtime forum in its bookstore on 15 October. The forum was chaired by Jennifer Shennan and featured former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Anne Rowse and Sir Jon Trimmer.
A particularly interesting comment was made at the end of the discussion by John Smythe of the New Zealand review site, Theatreview. Smythe was playwright-in-residence with Melbourne Theatre Company when MTC was producing Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie in 1970. He recalled that Sir Tyrone was taken aback by the costume for Helena in Act III (design reproduced in the book on p. 47) when he saw it during the tech run. He turned to Smythe and said ‘I’ve made a mistake. She’s got no business in that dress.’ Apparently he thought it was overly elaborate for the character he had drawn in his production but, knowing how much work had gone into the design and the making of the costume itself, he resolved not to tell Fredrikson but to live with the error. Smythe is seen below making his comment with the book open at the costume in question.
And on Twitter from Booksellers NZ: ‘Stopped by our local Unity Books & thrilled to have stumbled on a lunchtime talk including one of my heroes, the marvellous Sir Jon Trimmer. Celebrating the launch of Kristian Fredrikson: Designer by Michelle Potter.’
Press for October 2020
‘The Canberran dancer in an Archibald Portrait’. Story about dancer Jack Riley whose portrait by Marcus Wills achieved finalist status in the 2020 Archibald Prize and is hanging in the Art Gallery of NSW at present. The Canberra Times, 26 October 2020, p. 10. Here is a link to a PDF of the story.
Michelle Potter, 31 October 2020
Featured image: Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling in a moment from Duplex, 2019. Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenzi
I am pleased to be able to post some interesting material sent to me by New Zealand-born choreographer, Gray Veredon. He has just loaded the first of a series of video clips in which he talks about his aims and ideas for his choreographic output. He uses examples from his latest work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he mounted recently in Poland. See below.
Alan Brissenden (1932–2020)
The dance community is mourning the death of Dr Alan Brissenden, esteemed dance writer and outstanding academic from the University of Adelaide. Alan wrote about dance for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers from the 1950s onwards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Australian Dance Awards in 2013.
As I looked back through my posts for the times I have mentioned Alan on this site, it was almost always for his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance, 1945–1965. Since it was published in 2010, it has always been my go-to book about Australian dance for the period it covers. No gossip in it; just the story of what happened—honest, critical, carefully researched and authoritative information. Very refreshing. Find my review of the book, written in 2010 for The Canberra Times, at this link.
A moving obituary by Karen van Ulzen for Dance Australia, to which Alan was a long-term contributor, is at this link.
It was interesting to see that Marcus Wills’ painting Requiem (JR) was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Archibald Prize. While Wills states that the painting is not meant to be ‘biographical’, the (JR) of the title stands for dancer Jack Riley. Riley began his performing career as a Quantum Leaper with Canberra’s youth group, QL2 Dance. After tertiary studies he has gone on to work with a range of companies including Chunky Move, Australian Dance Party, and Tasdance.
See the tag Jack Riley for more writing about him and his work on this site.
The first live performance in a theatre I have been to since March took place in September at the newly constructed black box theatre space at Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra. It was a circus-style production called L’entreprise du risque. It featured Frenchman Bernard Bru and Australian Circus Oz performer Jake Silvestro, along with two young performers who trained at Canberra’s Warehouse Circus, Imogen Drury and Clare Pengryffyn.
While the show was somewhat uneven in standard, the standout performer was Jake Silvestro, whose acts on the Cyr wheel showed incredible balance and skill in general.
But whatever the standard, it was a thrill to be back watching live theatre again.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
In Wellington, New Zealand, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer is being sold through Unity Books, which presented the publication as its spotlight feature for its September newsletter. Follow this link. It includes Sir Jon Trimmer’s heartfelt impressions of the book, which I included in the August dance diary.
An extensive review by Dr Ian Lochhead, Christchurch-based art and dance historian, appeared in September on New Zealand’s Theatreview. Apart from his comments on the book itself, Dr Lochhead took the opportunity to comment on the importance of archiving our dance history. Read the full review at this link.
Royal New Zealand Ballet also featured the book in its September e-newsletter. See this link and scroll down to READ.
Back in Australia, Judy Leech’s review appeared in the newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. Again this is an extensive review. Read it at this link.
Press for September
‘Capital company.’ A story on Canberra’s professional dance company, Australian Dance Party. Dance Australia, September-November 2020, pp. 31-32.
I first met Edith Campbell in 2018 when I delivered the first Russell Kerr Lecture in Wellington. The day after the lecture Edith sent me a collection of items from productions by Opera-Technique Inc., the operetta company for which Kristian Fredrikson designed his very early shows, and with which Edith appeared as a performer. The material, which included press clippings and a booklet listing Opera-Technique productions between 1954 and 1994, was extremely helpful in my research, clearing up a number of points about those early Fredrikson years.
Edith has now read the Fredrikson book and has written a quite fascinating piece giving a personal account of what it was like performing with Opera-Technique. One section in particular suggests to me that, even in 1962 with his work on A Night in Venice, Fredrikson was involved in researching an accurate background for his designs. I am thrilled to be able to post Edith’s reflections on this site. And as more and more comments come in about the book I can’t help feeling that we need another book!
Read Edith’s story below.
Michelle Potter, 27 September 2020
Kristian Fredrikson, Designer—by Michelle Potter Basking in reflected glory! Reflections on reading this book
by Edith Campbell, Wellington
Who does not get a kick out of being in some way, however small, connected with a special event or with a ‘star’ reported in a publication? In 1963, having recently arrived in Wellington from my hometown Edinburgh, I joined a Wellington Polytechnic choral singing evening class (housed in the Wellington Technical College) which I discovered was also the amateur group Opera-Technique. Formed by enthusiastic former students of the Wellington Technical College (now Wellington High School), they had already presented a few musical productions in their spacious School Hall; Strauss’ A Night in Venice was their current project. Rehearsals involved working closely with Musical Director Harry Botham (a double-bass player in the National Orchestra and teacher at the Polytechnic) and of course with producer Harry Baker, referred to by Michelle Potter as teacher and mentor of the young Kristian Fredrikson as the costume designer. I do remember occasionally seeing this dark-haired young man about the place—of course we all admired his work—colourful—imaginative—sparkling!
As was common at that time, many of the cast were very ‘handy’ with their sewing machines. Mrs. Daphne Lawrence—our most excellent wardrobe mistress—a trained tailoress—was a whizz at interpreting the designer’s drawings; she produced practical patterns and cut out the fabrics. There were several real dressmakers in, or attached to, the company who did the more intricate work, but quite a number of the cast received their cutout costumes to sew together. What fun to stitch ribbons of sequins in swirls on the supposedly bare-bosoms of we show girls and insert a mirror into our garters to catch the eye of perspective clients! (Imaginative touches Kristian!) It was exciting to be so intimately involved in the production in this way in addition to singing and dancing in it—accompanied by a section of the National Orchestra no less!
Being presented in a School Hall the general public did not comprehend that the production not only was performed entirely by adults, but was extremely professional in every area, and so Opera-Technique took the bold step of taking their next production—Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne—into the city to perform in the Opera House! (took many years to pay off the debt!) Again the stage was filled with Kristian’s scintillating designs. Allan Lees designed the set. At this time overseas companies fairly frequently brought plays and musicals to the country’s main centres. From well-known institutions, in their homeland’s ‘down time’, they found it profitable to ‘tour the colonies’. The thespians resident in NZ were extremely well-versed in their craft, but, as the small population could not support them professionally (i.e. full time), the general populace saw them as amateurs and asked—if one may draw a Biblical analogy—‘can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1: 46). The standard of the shows put on by these so-called amateurs was of a high calibre in every respect both on stage and behind the scenes—set and costume design, lighting, stage management, even front-of-house—could often put the overseas companies to shame. It was a long time before the ‘Nazareth’ concept was overcome!
So this was the vibrant theatre scene into which the young Kristian was introduced—one where his excellent talents were recognized and fostered. An early illustration in the book shows his designs for the Kings in Menotti’s gem Amahl and the Night Visitors. They were seen and appreciated widely for several years as Opera-Technique presented the lovely Christmas story in many churches and halls in the greater Wellington area (had a simple very adaptable set by Allan Lees). Along with many singers and those in related stage crafts, Kristian’s experience with Opera-Technique stood him in good stead when he spread his wings to fly across the Tasman and further.
Be life humdrum or exciting, whatever makes a person tick—whatever motivates them, is always intriguing. Based on meticulous research, Michelle tells Kristian’s story beautifully. Every performer must ‘get under the skin’ of any character he or she plays. A costume that is ‘just right’ is itself a physical manifestation of that skin and Kristian had the knack of creating that skin with his designs. While spiritually getting under the skin, being wrapped in it by donning a costume adds a tremendously reassuring dimension. After a performance the audience will remember the expressiveness of a sonorous voice, the grace of a movement, but the visual appearance is an essential element in recreating the memory. With her liberal use of direct quotes from Kristian’s writings and reported conversations, Michelle gives us insight into his intense passion for attention to detail and his extensive studies to be very aware of the background of the stories he was illustrating, also that of the writers and composers—he worked with the complete picture for his references.
Needless to state, Kristian loved to return to NZ to fill commissions from the RNZ Ballet and the dancers and the audiences loved it too! In Peter Pan, Sir Jon Trimmer was in his element as he strutted about in his exuberant Captain Hook costume, complete with be-feathered hat. In real life Jon is delightfully comedic with more than a touch of mischievousness and his costume caught a whiff of that too!
It is often reported that a block-buster movie has a cast of thousands. A considerable proportion may actually appear on the screen (or be consigned to the cutting room floor). Though perhaps not strictly part of the ‘cast’, many of the thousands are the indispensable support people. By the time the last chord is played to accompany the rolling credits seldom does one patron remain in the cinema! Admittedly the ‘rolling’ is too fast to read individual names, but one glimpses titles such as ‘Best Boy’ or ‘caterer’. So sadly so much passion and creativity is not immediately acknowledged. Hopefully theatre audiences go home clutching their programs to peruse later the list of all the off-stage people who contributed so much to their pleasure!
Let us be immensely grateful to Michelle for her words and wonderful selection of illustrations to not only recognise Kristian’s accomplishments, but to remind us of the great number of talented and dedicated people who brought his designs to life in the many facets of the productions. The performers on stage receive applause—sometimes on the last night of a season, conductors, designers and stage managers are invited on stage also and a wave is given in the direction of the lighting box. Maybe a representative of all the ‘other people’ could appear. We all do what we do to express and share our love of beauty … but it is nice to occasionally receive at least a sliver of that light of reflected glory!!
Featured image: Front cover (detail) of the program for the Opera-Technique Inc. production of La vie parisienne, 1963. National Library of New Zealand, Eph-A-OPERA-OT-1963. The full cover image is below.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
My book, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, is now available in bookshops across Australia, and from online outlets, including the publisher’s site, Melbourne Books, and specialist online sellers such as Booktopia and Book Depository. I am indebted to those generous people and organisations who contributed to the crowd funding projects I initiated to help with the acquisition of hi-res images, where purchase was necessary, and to other photographers and curators who contributed their work and collection material without charge. I am more than happy with the reproduction quality of the images throughout the book.
The featured image on this post is from a New Zealand production of Swan Lake and, in addition to Fredrikson’s work in Australia, his activities in New Zealand are an integral part of the book. So too is his work for Stanton Welch and Houston Ballet, and reflections from Houston Ballet staff on the Fredrikson-designed Pecos and Swan Lake also are integral to the story. The book features some spectacular images from those two works.
It is a while since I saw a performance by the Royal Danish Ballet so I am looking forward to watching the company dance via a stream from Jacob’s Pillow taken from a performance they gave there in 2018. More later… In the meantime, read my thoughts on the 2005 Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen. I was there on behalf of ballet.co (now Dancetabs).
Further on streaming
Two productions, which streamed in July, which I watched but haven’t reviewed in detail, were Trisha Brown’s Opal Loop/Cloud Installation and Aszure Barton’s Over/Come. Both were streamed via the Baryshnikov Arts Centre site. I was especially interested in Opal Loop/Cloud Installation because the installation, which provided the visual background for the work, was by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. Nakaya is renown in Canberra for his fog installation (Foggy wake in a desert: an ecosphere) in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery. My grandchildren love it, some for the way the fog comes from the ground-level structure that generates it, others simply for the presence of the fog! I wondered what it was like to dance amid the cloud/fog in Opal Loop.
But I love watching the loose-limbed dancing that characterises Brown’s choreography and have great memories of watching various of her pieces performed, several years ago now, at the Tate Modern.
As for Aszure Barton, Over/Come was created while Barton was in residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, and was filmed in 2005. Efforts to find out a bit more about it, especially the dancers’ names, have been pretty much unsuccessful. Two dancers stood out—a tall gentleman wearing white pants that reached just below the knee (his fluidty of movement was exceptional), and a young lady who danced a cha-cha section. I’d love to know who they are.
The Australian Ballet
How devastating that the Australian Ballet has had to cancel its Sydney season for November-December, meaning that very few performances from the company have made it to the stage in 2020. I guess I was lucky that I managed to get to Brisbane in February to see The Happy Prince. 2020 is not the kind of farewell year David McAllister would have liked I’m sure.
The Australian Ballet’s production of Coppélia dates back to 1979—thirty-one years ago—when it was staged by Peggy van Praggh with George Ogilvie as dramaturg. This 2020 digital screening was dedicated to Ogilvie, who died in April of this year. There is little doubt that Ogilvie’s input had a lot to do with the long-lasting success of the ballet and in fact he returned to work with the Australian Ballet for its 2016 production, which is the one we see in this online screening. Of course it can’t be denied that the visual beauty of the production, with sets and costumes by Kristian Fredrikson, added to its success. Fredrikson, who was born in Wellington, New Zealand, admitted that he designed Coppélia as a tribute to van Praagh who, back in the 1960s, gave him the opportunity to work in Australia. He regarded van Praagh as the person who nurtured his early career. It was indeed a lovely tribute from Fredrikson since Coppélia was a work in which van Praagh herself had shone during her own dancing career.
The dancing in many of the productions of Coppélia I have seen has often been of a rather mixed quality. But not this time. Led by Ako Kondo as Swanilda, Chengwu Guo as Franz and Andrew Killian as Dr Coppélius, with a stunning supporting cast, there was little to complain about, and everything to admire as far as performance goes.
Kondo shone technically and in her acting, as did Guo. I especially loved the moments in Act I where the two of them stood in line to greet the official party arriving in the village square with Kondo declining, in no uncertain terms, to hold Guo’s hand (he had been paying too much attention to the doll on Dr Coppélius’ balcony). I also admired the grand pas de deux in Act III, which unfolded beautifully and was technically spectacular.
Andrew Killian was an interesting Dr Coppélius, not too over the top but very believable as an eccentric man totally absorbed in perfecting his magical powers. There was a lovely, calm rendition of the Prayer solo in Act III from Robyn Hendricks. And the corps de ballet deserves special mention for the vibrantly performed character dances in Act I. The Mazurka had its leading couple, but Guo joined in with a solo that added some spectacular moments in true principal artist fashion—exceptionally controlled turns, magnificent jumps and a truly beautiful showman-style use of head, chest and arms
As has been the case with pretty much every streamed production I have watched recently, it was great to see the occasional close-up shot of an individual dancer to give us a view of facial expressions and, of course, to give insight into the details of costumes.
My review of a 2016 performance, which I saw in Sydney with a quite different cast is at this link.
Postscript: It was extremely annoying that the cast sheet that was available on the Australian Ballet’s website, supposedly to give us information about the cast, was not the correct one. It was dated the evening performance in Sydney of 16 December 2016 but the cast was entirely different from the one we saw, who also, apparently, performed on 16 December. Perhaps there was a matinee performance on 16 December? But at least there were credits at the end of the film, which helped.
There has been much to watch via digital streaming over the past few weeks. The Australian Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet of New Zealand, and others have all provided some excellent footage of works from their repertoire. Some of the works I have seen via digital streaming I have already mentioned on this site, but there are two impressive productions I have just watched that I have not yet written about (except in relation to previous live productions).
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s filmed version of Bennelong is outstanding. I have been impressed with the work on the occasions when I have seen it live—my review is at this link. But it was exciting to see it on film as well. What I liked especially was being able to see Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up. Her leafy outfits for the dancers in the opening movements were just beautiful, and it was fascinating to see close up the textures of the fabrics used for the women in Bennelong’s life, who appear towards the end of the work. I also loved being able to see Beau Dean Riley Smith’s facial expressions throughout. He was such an impressive performer in this role. The film was (and still is at the time of writing) available via the Sydney Opera House website.
The second film that I really enjoyed was New York City Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s Apollo. It has been a while since I have seen Apollo live and I was staggered by the performance and interpretation of the title role given by Taylor Stanley, NYCB principal. He danced with such athleticism and displayed precision and strength throughout. He saw himself as a god and was determined to act accordingly. It was an eye-opener. This film was available on nycballet.com but finishes on 1 May. But … next up from NYCB is Ballo della Regina. I’m sure it will be worth watching.
International Dance Day
Wednesday 29 April 2020 was International Dance Day. But much (if not all) that had been planned was not able to come to fruition. Some of the Canberra dance community did, however, put together a short video, Message in Motion. It centres on a speech by South African dancer and choreographer Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and is spoken by Liz Lea. The opening movement sequences are from James Batchelor, who is currently confined in Paris where he has a residency.
George Ogilvie ((1931-2020)
I was sorry to hear that George Ogilvie, theatre director, had died in Braidwood, New South Wales, on 5 April 2020. I especially regret that he did not live to see the Kristian Fredrikson book published, although he knew that it was on its way. Ogilvie was one of the executors of the Estate of Kristian Fredrikson, and so I had some dealings with him as a result of his holding that position. He and Fredrikson enjoyed a productive and close collaborative connection beginning in the 1960s when Ogilvie was working as artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company. They then went on to work together in productions by various theatrical companies including the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera (as it was then called).
Ogilvie also taught mime for the Australian Ballet School in its early years and in his autobiography, Simple Gifts, he recalls his time there, mentioning in particular his recollections of Graeme Murphy.
Vale George Ogilvie.
In a previous post I mentioned an oral history I had recorded with Chrissa Keramidas for the National Library’s oral history program. That interview now has a timed summary, which is online together with the audio, at this link.
Just recently I was sent some images from a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream choreographed by Gray Veredon and performed in Gdansk, Poland, by the Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig. I recall with pleasure a visit in 2018 to La Mirande en Ardèche in the French Alps where Veredon lives. There he and I had several conversations about the work he had done with Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera for which Kristian Fredrikson had created sets and costumes. Later, I had had the opportunity to watch, on film, Veredon’s 1989 production of A Servant of Two Masters for Royal New Zealand Ballet and had been interested in the strength and unusual aspects of his choreographic approach, and in the way in which he integrated sets and costumes into the movement.
One of the remarks he made during our conversations in France was that he regarded the visual contributions to a work—sets in particular—as an integral player in the production. He said:
Scenery for me is not just there to be looked at for the next half an hour. It has to move and underline acting areas, character and musicality.
What was also striking for me about Veredon’s productions was the manner in which he transformed narratives from the ‘given’ to something decidedly thought-provoking and arresting. He said of his production of The Firebird, made for the New Zealand Ballet in 1982 (before the company had received its royal charter):
Basically, my version of Firebird was about the spirit of freedom breaking away from boundaries … the Firebird brought hope. That feeling grew and grew until it was strong enough to make freedom a possibility.
Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to see his Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was actually created, Veredon tells me, some years ago and danced by a pick-up company called Ballet de France. I found a review by a Los Angeles critic, which you can read at this link. It gives you an idea of what I have mentioned above re Veredon’s choreography and approach to storyline. Veredon also tells me that the Ballet de France experience introduced him to Eric Languet, whom Veredon then invited to New Zealand where, amongst other things, he danced Truffaldino in A Servant of Two Masters.
Here are two images from the Gdansk production. Costumes were by Zuzanna Markiewicz, sets by Katarrzyna Zawistowska.
More about Gray Veredon and his work in New Zealand appears in my forthcoming book on Kristian Fredrikson.