In 2018, in Wellington, an annual series named theRussell 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
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.
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.
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 (further details to be advised)
At this time of the year ‘the best of …’ is a common feature of many print and online sources. My thoughts on the dance highlights of the year will appear in the February/March issue of Dance Australia. But I can’t help commenting here on one or two particular highlights. For me, Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons, created for Queensland Ballet, stands at the top of my list of best production for 2019.
What impresses me about Scarlett’s work in general is his ability to compress complex stories into clear narratives that never lose the major thread of the storyline, but are never so complicated that we get lost. This was especially noticeable in Dangerous Liaisons. It was a work in which quite a lot of subplots were evident, and in which there were many characters involved in many clandestine activities. Scarlett managed, however, to leave us in no doubt as to what was happening. He also seems to have a real knack of collaborating with the other creatives who have input into his work. Again, this was evident in Dangerous Liaisons, which had a great arrangement of music, stunning costumes and evocative lighting. Read (or reread) the review at this link.
My Dance Australia contribution also mentioned Yuumi Yamada but I had not seen her perform as Clara in Peter Wright’s Nutcracker until after my Dance Australia deadline had passed. So I need to document here that I thought she was a standout as Clara, as well as in other works throughout 2019.
The Kristian Fredrikson project
As a very special end to 2019 (for me anyway), I signed a contract with Melbourne Books who will begin editing of my book on the life and career of Kristian Fredrikson in February with publication scheduled, at this stage, for August. Things Fredrikson have been occupying my life since 2011 and the book has been researched across Australia; in Wellington, New Zealand; in the United States, in New York and Houston; in London; and in La Mirande en Ardèche in the French Alps, where choreographer Gray Veredon lives. Below is one of the many striking images that will appear in the book.
John O’Brien (1933–2019)
After posting my obituary for Barry Kitcher last month, I was contacted by a reader who brought to my attention another death in the dance world—that of former Rambert dancer and much admired teacher, the Australian-born John O’Brien. Much of O’Brien’s life was spent in England and I never saw him dance, but here is a link to an obituary written for The Stage. Apart from his many performing and teaching accomplishments, O’Brien founded the bookshop, which I knew as Dance Books, in Cecil Court in central London. How many hours did I spend ferreting around in its second hand department! And how sad that it had to close. But now I know that it was founded by O’Brien.
Happy New year 2020
All best wishes to all those who read my posts, and especially to those who contribute in one way or another. It also continues to thrill me that we in Australia (and elsewhere) benefit from dance news from New Zealand with some great posts from Jennifer Shennan. So my particular thanks to her for her contributions and the manner in which they expand our understanding of dance and its context.
At the beginning of July, I set up a funding project via the Australian Cultural Fund in an effort to raise enough money to pay for digitisation of designs for inclusion in my forthcoming book on the life and career of designer Kristian Fredrikson. Following Fredrikson’s death in 2005, the executors of his estate placed a large collection of his personal papers and designs in the National Library in Canberra. Unfortunately very little of this material has been digitised so the costs of acquiring material at a resolution suitable for publication are high. The same applies to material held in the National Gallery also in Canberra.
Well the project has now ended and I am thrilled to report that we achieved our funding goal. I thank from the depths of my being those incredibly generous people who supported the project and allowed us to reach our goal. Below, in low resolution, are three images that may well appear in the book. They are all, as is the featured image, from Fredrikson’s film commissions from the 1980s. Just a tiny sample of the kinds of designs to which I now have access.
Fredrikson’s designs are filled with surprises. All images are from MS 10122, National Library of Australia.
Deon Hastie appointed to head NAISDA College
The latest news from NAISDA College is that Deon Hastie has been appointed Head of Dance at the College. Hastie is a former student of NAISDA and graduated from there in 1998. Many will remember him as an exceptional artist with Leigh Warren and Dancers between 1999 and 2010. He both danced and choreographed during those years and, on leaving the company worked as an independent choreographer and teacher and has been artistic director of Kurruru Youth Performing Arts in Adelaide since 2010. He is seen below in an image by Adelaide-based photographer Alex Makeyev.
Press for July 2019
‘Bangarra celebrates 30 years with pride.’ Review of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand. The Canberra Times, 23 July 2019, p. 13.
Michelle Potter, 31 July 2019
Featured image: Bright Young Things and Eastern Corset Dancers from Undercover. Palm Beach Pictures, 1982. Design by Kristian Fredrikson, National Library of Australia
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, TheRagtime 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.
Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlettt’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
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
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.’
‘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.’
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]
While visiting the Tate Britain with the express purpose of examining the Tate’s excellent collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings (Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake was inspired by The Lady of Shallot), I stumbled on a piece of performance art, The Squash. The work of British sculptor and performance artist Anthea Hamilton, it involved a single performer (a different dancer each day apparently), dressed in a squash-like costume (chosen each day from a collection of costumes), moving around a white tiled area.
The program evolved from Hamilton’s research into performance art in the 1960s and 1970s and in particular from a photograph she found of a person dressed as a squash lying among vines. How does a squash move? Without much variety I think. But still it was a diversion.
A dancer in wartime: Gillian Lynne
Some dance fans in Australia may remember Gillian Lynne from her work in 1975–1976 on the production of Fool on the Hill, a work for the Australian Ballet especially commissioned for television. More recently, I was impressed by her work in the revival of Helpmann’s early work Miracle in the Gorbals for Birmingham Royal Ballet, which I was lucky enough to see in London in 2014. And of course she has had a stellar career in musical theatre.
Promotional shot by John McKinnon of cast members in Fool on the Hill. Robert Helpmann as Sergeant Pepper is foregound left, John Meehan is centre as the Puma Tamer. National Library of Australia.
I was not aware until very recently of A dancer in wartime, an autobiographical account of Lynne’s early career as a student and then dancer with Sadler’s Wells.
Published in 2011, it is a highly personal and moving work finishing with preparations for and the opening of the production of The Sleeping Beauty of 1946, the first production to open in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, after World War II. Definitely worth a read. Unfortunately, it leaves a few threads in the air. What, for example, happened to Geoffrey, a serviceman who seemed smitten with Lynne, who also seemed smitten with him. I have yet to discover the next part of the story!
Gray Veredon in France
I had the pleasure very recently of visiting choreographer and director Gray Veredon at his home, La Mirande, in the Ardèche region of southern France. Veredon choreographed a number of ballets with designs by Kristian Fredrikson for Royal New Zealand Ballet and choreographed and directed two operas for Wellington City Opera, also with designs by Fredrikson.
A cosy corner at La Mirande
Veredon was generous in sharing his thoughts about working with Fredrikson, who admired him greatly. Fredrikson wrote, ‘I have over 30 years found only two [choreographers] who were intuitively visual and determined to incorporate the design into choreography and dramatic visual statements.’ They were Veredon and Graeme Murphy.
Veredon’s thoughts on his work with Fredrikson, and on his own choreographic concepts, will feed into my biography of Fredrikson, which is nearing completion.
Michelle Potter, 30 April 2018
Featured image: Moment from The Squash, Tate Britain, April 2018. Phoro: Neville Potter
14 April 2018 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
I had the pleasure of seeing Murphy for a second time, this time in Sydney at a mid-season matinee and in a top-notch seat (as a result of many years of subscribing and slowly moving forward into a great position).
Much, if not all, that I wrote after the Melbourne opening still stands. One or two performers, however, stood out for me on this second occasion. In Grand, ‘Alligator Crawl’ by Fats Waller was wonderfully danced by George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu. Xu in particular made the most of the opportunity and looked smart and sassy, as was appropriate in the jazz situation that the music demanded. Then, Yuumi Yamada and Andrew Killian danced beautifully in the duet to the Beethoven ‘Lento e mesto’ from his Piano Sonata in D major. There was a certain vulnerability in the way Yamada moved and yet technically her dancing was strong. Killian was a perfect partner in this situation.
I also omitted to mention the work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet in my previous post. His Reflections, the opening filmed monologue from Murphy, and his introduction to Grand, which showed the incredible Wakako Asano from the Sydney Dance Company production of 2005, were fine examples of Charluet’ work and nostalgic reminders of how exceptional Sydney Dance Company was under Murphy and Vernon.
Shéhérazade, however, remained a disappointment without its silk tent. It might be one thing to perform an excerpt without the full set, which if I recall correctly was the case in Body of Work (2002) when just the opening pas de deux was performed. But the Murphy program presented the full work and it truly lost its mysterious and erotic quality without the original set.
Here is part of what Kristian Fredrikson wrote about the set: ‘Blue silk tent with applied gold patterns, a silk sling, a rope, 4 watchers on illuminated perspex—glittering gauze.’ And here is his description of one highlight where the silk plays a significant role in the choreography: ‘A girl arises from her silk trapeze and dances a yearning solo … at two points of the solo the girl is mirror-imaged by the first girl who slips in and out of the gauze.’ It would have been respectful, as well as giving audiences a true picture of what Shéhérazade was really like, had there been some effort to reproduce the original set.
Note: The National Library of Australia holds some colour photographs from the first performances (1979) of Shéhérazade taken by Don McMurdo, which show the blue tent with its gold designs. I have made concerted and repeated efforts to get permission to use them but I have had no response from the copyright owner. The National Library holds them in trust only and Don McMurdo’s permission is not sufficient. I still hold out hope that one day the Sydney Opera House’s legal team will respond.
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.
10 December 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
On 10 December 2016, I saw the 258th performance by the Australian Ballet of Peggy van Praagh’s production of Coppélia. A few aspects of the van Praagh production seem to have changed over the years since it received its premiere in 1979, perhaps not always for the best, but it remains a strong production and a delightful excursion into the world of 19th century ballet—the original production premiered in Paris in 1870.
At the 258th performance I had the good fortune to see Leanne Stojmenov as Swanilda. Her characterisation was engaging and beautifully maintained from beginning to end, including at those times when she was not the centre of attention but mingling with others on the side of the stage. She smiled, she frowned, she pouted, she stamped her foot, she was playful—her every thought was so clear. Her dancing was calm and assured but still technically exciting. It was a truly charming performance. She was partnered by Ty King-Wall as an attentive Franz who persisted in his pursuit of her, despite her various mini tantrums over his behaviour, and despite that ear of corn that refused to make the appropriate noise for them. Together they were the epitome of a village couple, as indeed they are meant to be.
As Dr Coppélius, Ben Davis gave a competent performance and it is always a pleasure to see Dr Coppélius minus the over the top pantomime-style characterisation that is often the way this character is portrayed. But, by the same token, Dr Coppélius does need to have a strength of character and Davis didn’t quite manage to convey anything that might give us a clue to this character’s personality. He was just a nice old toy-maker/magician. I also missed Dr Coppélius’ appearance in Act III, when he demands and receives compensation for the destruction Swanilda and Franz have caused to his workshop in Act II. Maybe I am imagining that this scene was once part of van Praagh’s production? But it is a part of many other productions and it rounds off that section of the story very nicely.
It was a good day for the male corps de ballet—Franz’s friends danced exceptionally well, especially in Act I. Ella Havelka and Jake Mangakahia led the Act I character dances with good style. And I always enjoy seeing Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow onstage and they stood out among Swanilda’s friends, especially in the dance of the wedding couples in Act III.
Natasha Kusen danced a lovely Prayer. She brought a peaceful quality to the role and technically scarcely faltered.
Kristian Fredrikson’s designs still look beautiful, although I had forgotten how large (and often overpowering) some of his headdresses are. I had also forgotten how beautiful his all-white costume for Prayer is—so much nicer, and still appropriate, than the very drab, usually grey-ish Prayer outfits seen in some other productions.
Coppélia, and this performance in particular, was an absolutely delightful way to end the Australian Ballet’s 2016 season. It no doubt benefited from input from dramaturg George Ogilvie, who worked with van Praagh and Fredrikson in 1979 on the creation of van Praagh’s production, and who returned to advise on the show this year.
There was one empty seat in the front row at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s inaugural Harry Haythorne choreographic awards last weekend…odd since a good view in a studio setting is always at a premium and the house was otherwise full to overflowing. Perhaps Harry was playing ‘the angel at the table’—occupying that seat to keep a keen eye on proceedings, pleased to see that his encouragement of emerging choreographers is being remembered, and that today’s young dancers who never met him can nevertheless tell what kind of initiative he brought to his term as artistic director here, 1981–1992. Let’s cheat Death awhile.
A small group of Harry’s colleagues and friends had met to plan these awards, the idea and koha for which grew from the spirited party held in his memory back in January, in tandem with the festive gathering in Melbourne. It’s interesting to ponder on the New Zealand and Australian inter-twinings in our company over decades. Harry for starters, himself Australian through and through, yet we think of him as a New Zealander emeritus. Australian Mark Keyworth as company manager, navigated with him.
Promising young choreographer Loughlan Prior won both the panel’s and the people’s award, with the striking imagery of his work, Eve, set to song and spoken poetry. Loughlan was born in Melbourne though did later training in New Zealand.
On present membership, over one third of the RNZB dancers are from Australia, and/or trained there, so more threads are in the weave. Cast a thought back to the middle decades of the 20th century, when the Borovansky Ballet’s regular tours were so welcome here. It was their 1952 tour that brought dancer Poul Gnatt, who looked around, hunched that New Zealand might like a ballet company, returned to found one the following year—and the rest is history.
Peggy van Praagh was involved in staging several productions for New Zealand Ballet in early years here, not least Tudor’s Judgment of Paris. She and Russell Kerr arranged for dancer exchanges between Australian and New Zealand companies, and also masterminded two landmark fortnight-long residential courses of dance appreciation at University of Armidale in NSW. Both schemes should have continued ever since. I still treasure my notebooks from things we saw and heard there in 1967 and 1969—from van Praagh, Algeranoff, Beth Dean, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch, Karl Welander, Keith Bain, Eric Westbrook—films of Martha Graham and of Jose Limon—good things that last, seeding an awareness of dance for a lifetime.
Many here have wished that we might have seen more of Graeme Murphy’s choreography in New Zealand over the years. There was his searingly memorable Orpheus, commissioned by Harry for the Stravinsky Celebration season in 1982. Sydney Dance Company brought the greatly admired Some Rooms to the first Arts Festival here, and Shining followed soon after that. Then Matz Skoog in 1997 brought Murphy’s quietly powerful The Protecting Veil, a work that suited our company particularly well…but we could have done and seen so much more of his remarkable oeuvre. Harry brought Jonathan Taylor’s impressive Hamlet, and ‘Tis Goodly Sport—suiting our company so well. Kristian Fredrikson, local boy made good, began his training here in Wellington, and continued to design and dress so many memorable productions on both sides of the Tasman, adding to the ties that bind. RNZB have also toured a number of seasons in Australia over the years.
But with the brand new ballet from Liam Scarlett, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pioneering as a co-production with Queensland Ballet, there’s an inspired possibility of further exchanges within the choreographic repertoire, with rich benefits for those two companies and their audiences on both sides of the Tasman. Directors Li Cunxin in Queensland and Francesco Ventriglia in Wellington will no doubt be already thinking ahead. They could be onto a winner here. I’m just going to see one more performance of this scintillating faerie ballet shortly, and will then write about it. It’s quite on the cards that many who were so enchanted by the premiere season here will want to travel to Queensland next year to catch it on the rebound. Nothing wrong with falling in love again. I’m sure Harry would agree.
Jennifer Shennan, 15 September 2015
Featured image: Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photographer not known
Although the Paris Opera Ballet’s website is still listing Australian Ballet School graduate Hannah O’Neill as a coryphée on its organisational chart, O’Neill is now a sujet with the company. Several French websites are carrying this news including Danser canal historique. O’Neill’s promotion took place as a result of a competitive examination, held at the end of 2014, for promotion within the company. O’Neill performed a set piece, Gamzatti’s variation from Act II of Rudolf Nureyev’s La Bayadère, and her chosen piece, a variation from George Balanchine’s Walpurgis Night.
O’Neill will also make her debut as Odette/Odile in the Nureyev Swan Lake at the Opéra Bastille on 8 April, and the performance is sold out! Quite an astonishing rise for someone who joined the Paris Opera Ballet on a temporary, seasonal contract only in late 2011 (the same year she graduated from the Australian Ballet School). O’Neill was given a life-time contract in 2013, another astonishing feat for someone who is not French by birth; was promoted to coryphée at the end of 2013; and now is a sujet (closest Australian equivalent is probably soloist).
And what a beautiful photograph from Sébastien Mathé. That ‘Dutch tilt’ is so perfect for conveying the feeling of a Forsythe piece.
The news that Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe will retire at the end of the current season of Giselle set my mind racing. How lucky I have been over the years. She has given me so many wonderful dancing moments to remember. Some were unexpected: a mid-season matinee in Sydney many years ago (probably during the Ross Stretton era come to think of it) when she made her debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet—the Cranko version. Some were thrilling: those fouettés in Stanton Welch’s Divergence! Some have rightly been universally acclaimed: her performances in works by Graeme Murphy, notably the leading roles in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. One made history: her debut in Giselle in Sydney in 2006 after which she was promoted to principal. But, from my extensive personal store of memories, I loved her debut as the Sylph in La Sylphide in Melbourne in 2005. Looking back:
At the next day’s matinee, the leading roles of the Sylphide and James were danced by Madeleine Eastoe and Tim Harbour. Eastoe caught easily the feathery and insubstantial nature of the Sylphide but she also conveyed a bit of artifice in her dealings with James. She hovered. She darted. She was here. She was there. Her bourrees were as delicate as the wings of the butterfly she catches for James in Act II. But when she wept at the window in Act I, when she melted with grief as she rebuked James that he loved another, and when she capriciously snatched the ring meant for Effie from his hand, we knew that James was trapped not by love but by the trickery of a fey person. Here was the beautiful danger. This was Eastoe’s debut performance as the Sylphide and she showed all the technical and dramatic strengths that mark her as one of the Australian Ballet’s true stars. (Michelle Potter, ballet.co magazine, April 2005)
Madeleine Eastoe in a study for La Sylphide, 2005. Photo: Justin Smith
Again, a stunning image and one that has inspired my writing about the Romantic era. And may Eastoe lead a fulfilling life after Giselle.
The Goddess of Air at the Stray Dog Café
This blog article from the British Library is a lovely read and includes a gorgeous portrait of Tamara Karsavina by John Singer Sargent.
Press for March 2019 (Update May 2019: Online links to articles published by The Canberra Times are no longer available)
‘Note [on Quintett].’ Program note for Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind season.
‘Undercover Designs.’ Article on Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the film Undercover (1983), The National Library of Australia Magazine, March 2015, pp. 20–23. Online version.
‘Classical ballet a dance to the death.’ Article on Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle, The Canberra Times (Panorama), 7 March 2015, p. 18.