A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet—another look

Royal New Zealand Ballet is making available a range of videos of productions from the repertoire for free home viewing for a brief period during the covid-19 lockdown. The dress rehearsal of their 2015 production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream screened last week.

Comment by Jennifer Shennan

This ballet was originally commissioned by director Ethan Stiefel in a promising initiative for Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet to share resources, production and performance rights. The project could have grown to include other productions, teacher and dancer exchanges and residencies, and the concept of trans-Tasman co-productions was heartening. The premiere season of MND was staged here during the term of the next director Francesco Ventriglia.

The shimmering overture of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes a humming faerie world. The dark blue-black midnight stage flickers alight with fireflies and glow worms. This is a visit to Waitomo Caves, after-dark Zealandia, Otari Bush or Botanical Gardens, the remembered hush of night in those places. You don’t need a grandchild holding your hand, though it helps, to know the feeling that magic could be out there, or look there, or quick another one over there. This entire production delivers on the promise caught in those quivering opening moments—with choreography, design and music inseparably part of what is arguably one of the best works in the company’s repertoire.

Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography drew galvanised performances from each of the dancers who were members of RNZB back in 2015. This viewing is a welcome reminder of their verve and style, the stage positively buzzing with the wit of a team of dancers who knew each other well and could together rise to a performance of such assured calibre. It is poignant in the extreme that we have loved and then lost so many of these artists in the swift turnover of dancers during the months that followed. There’s always a mobility of dancers amongst ballet companies but the scale and timing of that particular exodus wrought a major shift in the RNZB’s artistic identity.

Nigel Gaynor, music director back in the day, made an inspired full-length score by extending Mendelssohn’s original incidental music with seamlessly interpolated excerpts from others of his compositions. Gaynor conducted the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the result was a transport of delight.

Tracy Grant Lord produced fabulous designs for a number of major RNZB productions—for Christopher Hampsons’s Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet, as well as this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lighting design by Kendall Smith positively sparkles with the wit of illuminating fairies and caverns themselves, rather than simply throwing light at them.

My review in 2015 was based on the performance by Lucy Green as Titania, Qi Huan as Oberon, both splendidly cast. This video has Tonia Looker and Maclean Hopper as leads and they do an equally fine job. Harry Skinner plays Bottom with a grounded quality that delights without overplaying the role, revealing an actor’s sensibility. Kohei Iwamoto is the quintessential Puck that Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character—daredevil, wicked, witty, mercurial rascal. Whatever the role, Kohei has always absorbed his virtuosic technique into characterisation and never used it for display. Even to watch him in a studio class was to see how his strength, precision and swiftness could grow into grace and the sprezzatura that Shakespeare knew all about ‘…that you would e’er do nothing but that.’

You could be moved by every moment of this ballet, beginning with a vulnerable young child caught in the crossfire of his quarrelling parents and their eventual hard-earned reconciliation, but one hilarious mid-moment breaks in to the action narrative as all of the cast dash en diagonale across the stage in pursuit of each other for the wrong and/or the right reasons—it’s a like a side-stage glimpse of the backstage life of all these characters—a cheeky wave and a wink to savour forever.

The fairies are a shimmering line-up—Lucy Green and Mayu Tanigaito among them—and Scarlett’s sense of comic timing draws a host of terrific performances—from Abigail Boyle, Paul Mathews, Laura Saxon Jones, Joseph Skelton, William Fitzgerald, Loughlan Prior, Jacob Chown. These assured performers really did work as a magic team, lucky we were. ‘Hence away. Now all is well. One alone stand sentinel …’

A recent saga has seen Liam Scarlett’s career with the Royal Ballet and elsewhere collapse into apparent ruin. The media fair bristled with leaked early reports (oh how salaciousness boosts ratings) but now the investigation seems to be over and the word is mum with the Royal Ballet declaring  ‘There were no matters to pursue…’ So through that vagueness all we know is the heartbreak of Scarlett’s gifts destroyed, his career for now anyway at a standstill. Let’s meantime be grateful for the wondrous talents and team that made this ballet in the first place, and hope there can be some eventual resolution to the current impasse. Good on RNZB for screening his choreographic masterwork. 

Jennifer Shennan, 20 April 2020

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Swan Lake. Artists of the Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet (on film)

Friday 20 March 2020 (the day I began writing this) was the date I was to be sitting in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, watching Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake. Instead, with the world closing down as a result of COVID-19, I am sitting at home in Canberra having just watched a DVD of a 2018 performance of that production. Luckily I bought the DVD last time I was in London. I hadn’t had the chance to watch it until now. Here, then, are my thoughts.

Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake is heart-stopping. I don’t think I can honestly say that of any other Swan Lakes I have watched over many decades of dance going. The main dancers—Marianela Nuñez as Odette/Odile, Vadim Muntagirov as Siegfried and Bennet Gartside as von Rothbart—not only dance with technical brilliance but project the underlying emotions of love, longing, loss, power and deception. Emotion pours out of every movement, every glance, every gesture. Powerfully.

Scarlett has made some choreographic changes, although they are not major. The production notes acknowledge Petipa, Ivanov, and Ashton as well as Scarlett. But some small non-choreographic changes that Scarlett has introduced make the storyline so much clearer. Many parts of the narrative we know just because we have read something, somewhere. But Scarlett explains things. He has an intellect and he transfers that intellect into the production, and hence to us. We are involved to a greater extent.

In Act I it is Prince Siegfried’s birthday and there is celebratory dancing. His mother the Queen (Elizabeth McGorian), acting a little sternly, suggests it is time for him to marry. But Siegfried decides to go out into the forest to shoot the swans he sees flying overhead. We know it all. We’ve seen it before. But are we ever really shown with clarity that it is Siegfried’s birthday? Or are we simply told that in the synopsis? In the Scarlett production, Siegfried’s friend Benno (Alexander Campbell) gives Siegfried a present, a golden goblet. And so begins the celebratory dancing, everyone with a goblet in hand for several moments. The Queen, when she arrives, also has a present for her son. It is a cross-bow, a family heirloom, and we know that Siegfried will use it in the next act.

It was also a change to see the introduction of an invitation, a paper prop clearly marked ‘Invitation’, to an event that would be held in the palace at which Siegfried would choose a marriage partner. It was shown to Siegfried by the Queen and his reaction paved the way for his anxiety, and ultimately to his going into the forest with his cross-bow.

But who was that mysterious rather supercilious man dressed in black who acted as some kind of adviser to the Queen? He seemed to be getting in the way a little and forbidding various things. Did he have the right? Well there was bit of dramatic irony introduced at this point. When, as Act I comes to a close, Siegfried goes against the wishes of the man in black and refuses to go inside, setting off instead with his cross-bow, the man in black drags himself upstage where he collapses as if shot. Is he von Rothbart in disguise? Has he been defeated in an attempt to keep Siegfried out of the forest where he might meet Odette? Or is this more a juxtaposition of innocence versus deviousness, good versus evil, with the Queen in the middle? Does it perhaps foretell von Rothbart’s end? It is simply exciting to ponder.

As the work transitions to Act II, the lakeside scenes (designs by John Macfarlane) are full of foreboding. A rocky outcrop and a bright moon dominate, although the lighting is quite dark. But then it is night time.

Marianela Nuñez as Odette in Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, 2018. © ROH. Photo: Bill Cooper

Throughout Act II there is the usual structure, perhaps with a little more mime than is apparent in many other productions. But what is transcendent is that Muntagirov shows us how he feels, anxious at times but full of longing for Odette. Nuñez shows her own anxiety, and perhaps fear. Should she engage with this man who appears to love her? Her technique, that beautiful line and her ability to unfold each movement slowly, is also a highlight.

We also meet von Rothbart as von Rothbart rather than the man in black of Act I. Macfarlane has given him a long feathery coat, reflecting the owl-like character of many productions, and has added a touch of red to part of his body costume: he is ‘red beard’ after all. Gartside gives a powerful performance with dominance as a major characteristic.

The work is set in Victorian times, clearly shown by the costume worn by the Queen in each of the acts in which she appears. But when Act III opens we see a kind of Baroque splendour. The sweeping staircase, extravagant floor lamps and the throne on which the Queen sits to watch proceedings all are reminiscent of European Baroque buildings.

Again Act III proceeds as one might expect, although the national dances have a real freshness to them and are beautifully (and I suspect expensively) costumed.

Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Siegfried in Act III of Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Alice Pennefather/ROH

But once again Muntagirov stands out for the way in which he carries the story forward. From the longing and anxiety of Act II he is now thrilled at having found his lost love, or so he believes.

The coda from the Act III pas de deux is simply stunning. Marianela Nuñez’s fouettés, starting with a triple and sprinkled throughout with doubles and another triple, are remarkable, as are Muntagirov’s double tours finishing in arabesque. And there he is smiling all the while. Watch below.

In Act IV the lakeside scenic elements are clearer although the moon has disappeared somewhat. I guess dawn is approaching? The final pas de deux is heart-wrenching and I won’t introduce a spoiler and give away the deeply moving ending. Buy the DVD. It is worth every dollar and terrific watching, especially when everything live is currently cancelled.

As far as the DVD goes, it is interesting, too, to see Scarlett taking a curtain call with the company in this 2018 presentation. Everyone onstage looks and acts as though they have huge admiration for his work and for him. There is also an ‘extra’ on the DVD showing Scarlett and Macfarlane discussing their vision for the production. It is heart-breaking that Scarlett’s career, so remarkable to date, may be cut short by events currently being examined.

Here is a link to posts on this website about the works from Scarlett that Jennifer Shennan and I have seen and written about.

And as a final comment, of course I wish I had been able to see the work live. But …

Michelle Potter, 21 March 2020

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Liam Sarlett’s Swan Lake. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Swan Lake. Artists of the Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper
Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. January 2020

Alice Topp’s Aurum

Aurum, choreographed by Alice Topp, a resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet, was first seen in Melbourne in 2018. It was followed by a 2019 season in Sydney, a scene from which is the featured image for this post. Also in 2019 it had a showing in New York at the Joyce Theater. In fact the Joyce was in part responsible for the creation of Aurum. Aurum was enabled with the support of a Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance, awarded by the Joyce. Major funding came from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation. Aurum went on to win a Helpmann Award in 2019.

Now Topp will stage her work for Royal New Zealand Ballet as part of that company’s Venus Rising program opening in May 2020. She has recently been rehearsing the work in RNZB studios in Wellington.

Madeleine Graham and Allister Madin in rehearsal for Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeremy Brick
Madeleine Graham and Allister Madin in rehearsal for Alice Topp’s Aurum. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

I can still feel the excitement of seeing Aurum for the first time in 2018 when it was part of the Australian Ballet’s Verve program. My review from that season is at this link.

Dance Australia critics’ survey

Below are my choices in the annual Dance Australia critics’ survey. See the February/March 2020 issue of Dance Australia for the choices made by other critics across Australia. The survey is always interesting reading.

  • Highlight of the year
    West Side Story’s return to Australian stages looking as fabulous as it did back in the 1960s. A true dance musical in which choreographer Jerome Robbins tells the story brilliantly through dance and gesture.
  • Most significant dance event
    Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary. Those who have led, and are leading the company—Suzanne Musitz, Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, and currently Rafael Bonachela—have given Australian audiences a varied contemporary repertoire with exposure to the work of some remarkable Australian choreographers and composers, as well as the work of some of the best contemporary artists from overseas.
  • Most interesting Australian independent group or artist
    Canberra’s Australian Dance Party, which has started to develop a strong presence and unique style and has given Canberra a much needed local, professional company. The 2019 production From the vault showed the company’s strong collaborative aesthetic with an exceptional live soundscape and lighting to add to the work’s appeal.
  • Most interesting Australian group or artist
    Bangarra Dance Theatre. Over thirty years the company has gone from strength to strength and can only be admired for the way in which Stephen Page and his associates tell Indigenous stories with such pride and passion.
Beau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre 2017. Photo: Vishal Pandey
Beau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong in Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey
  • Most outstanding choreography
    Melanie Lane’s thrilling but somewhat eccentric WOOF as restaged by Sydney Dance Company. It was relentless in its exploration of group behaviour and reminded me a little of a modern day Rite of Spring
Scene from Melanie Lane's 'WOOF'. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Scene from Melanie Lane’s WOOF. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
  • Best new work
    Dangerous Liaisons by Liam Scarlett for Queensland Ballet. Scarlett has an innate ability to compress detail without losing the basic elements of the narrative and to capture mood and character through movement. It was beautifully performed by Queensland Ballet and demonstrated excellence in its collaborative elements.
  • Most outstanding dancer(s)
    Kohei Iwamato from Queensland Ballet especially for his dancing in Dangerous Liaisons as Azolan, valet to the Vicomte de Valmont. His dancing was light, fluid, and technically exact and he made every nuance of Scarlett’s choreography clearly visible

    Tyrel Dulvarie in Bangarra’s revival of Unaipon in which he danced the role of David Unaipon. His presence on stage was imposing throughout and his technical ability shone, especially in the section where he danced as Tolkami (the West Wind).
  • Dancer(s) to watch
    Ryan Stone, dancer with Alison Plevey’s Canberra-based Australian Dance Party (ADP). His performance in ADP’s From the vault was exceptional for its fluidity and use of space and gained him a Dance Award from the Canberra Critics’ Circle.

    Yuumi Yamada of the Australian Ballet whose dancing in Stephen Baynes Constant Variants and as the Daughter in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia showed her as an enticing dancer with much to offer as she develops further.
  • Boos!
    The Australian Government’s apparent disinterest in the arts and in the country’s collecting institutions. The removal of funding for Ausdance National, for example, resulted in the cancellation of the Australian Dance Awards, while the efficiency dividend placed on collecting institutions, which has been in place for years now, means that items that tell of our dance history lie unprocessed and uncatalogued, and hence are unusable by the public for years.
  • Standing ovation
    I’m standing up and cheering for the incredible variety of dance that goes on beyond our major ballet and contemporary companies. Youth dance, community dance, dance for well-being, dance for older people, and more. It is indicative of the power that dance has to develop creativity, health and welfare, and a whole range of social issues.
Scene from Eye to Eye in On course. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

New oral history recordings

In January I had the pleasure of recording two new oral history interviews for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. The first was with Chrissa Keramidas, former dancer with the Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. Keramidas recently returned as a guest artist in the Australian Ballet’s recent revival of Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The second was with Emeritus Professor Susan Street, AO, dance educator over many years including with Queensland University of Technology and the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

News from James Batchelor

James Batchelor’s Redshift, originally commissioned by Chunky Move in 2017, will have another showing in Paris in February as part of the Artdanthé Festival. Redshift is another work emerging from Batchelor’s research following his taking part in an expedition to Heard and McDonald Islands in the sub-Antarctic in 2016. Artdanthé takes place at the Théâtre de Vanves and Batchelor’s works have been shown there on previous occasions.

Study for Redshift. Photo: © Morgan Hickinbotham

Batchelor is also about to start work on a new piece, Cosmic Ballroom, which will premiere in December 2020 at another international festival, December Dance, in Bruges, Belgium. Below are some of Batchelor’s thoughts about this new work.

Set in a 19th Century Ballroom in Belgium, Cosmic Ballroom will playfully reimagine social dances and the aesthetic relationship they have to the space and time they exist within. We will work with movement as a plastic and expressive language that is formed through social encounters: the passing of thoughts, feelings and uncertainties from body to body. It will ponder the public and private and the personal and interpersonal as tonal zones that radiate and contaminate. How might movement be like a virus in this context? How might space-times be playfully spilling across and infecting one another from the baroque ballroom to the post-industrial club space?

Batchelor will collaborate with an team of Australian, Italian and UK artists on this work.

Liam Scarlett

Not such good news

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2020

Featured image: Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
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
Lucy Green as Cecile and Alexander Idaszak as Valmont in 'Dangerous Liaisons'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly

Dance diary. December 2019

  • The best of …

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.

Yuumi Yamada_and dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'The Nutcracker', 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Yuumi Yamada and dancers of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
  • 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.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Royal New Zealand Ballet 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson. This version of Peter Pan was also staged by West Australian Ballet in 2013. There have been various revivals
  • 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.

And here’s to a great year of dance in 2020.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2019

Featured image: Lucy Green as Cécile and Alexander Idaszak as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucy Green as Cecile and Alexander Idaszak as Valmont in 'Dangerous Liaisons'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly
Ryan Stone in Australia Dance Party's 'From the Vault', 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. November 2019

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards (Dance)

The Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards for 2019 were announced on 19 November at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. Four dance awards were given, as follows:

Australian Dance Party for the company’s production of From the Vault, choreographed and directed by Alison Plevey in collaboration with dancers, Olivia Fyfe, Stephen Gow, Eliza Sanders, Alana Stenning, and Ryan Stone. With live music and sound by Alex Voorhoeve and Andy McMillan, along with evocative lighting by Mark Dyson, costumes designed by Imogen Keen, and dramaturgy by Karla Conway, From the Vault was an outstanding collaborative endeavour. Brilliantly conceived and executed, it was the [Canberra] dance highlight of the year.

Zara Bartley and Daniel Convery of Bravissimo Productions for their initiative in attracting outstanding national and international dancers to Canberra for a gala production, World Stars of Ballet. The enterprise demonstrated courage and resourcefulness, along with a determination to put Canberra forward as a venue for world-class ballet productions.

Ryan Stone for his committed performance in Australian Dance Party’s From the Vault. His outstanding dancing, with its freedom and fluidity within the set choreography, displayed a remarkable mastery of how the body moves through and in space, which is at the heart of all dancing.

Nathan Rutup for his high-energy choreography for the musical Heathers directed by Kelly Roberts and Grant Pegg for Dramatic Productions. Rutup’s dance numbers were so polished and in-tune with the material that it is difficult to imagine these songs done any other way.

  • Shaun Parker & Company

Shaun Parker & Company has recently announced its program for 2020, the company’s 10th anniversary year. Some of the works for the season focus on Parker’s interest in social issues affecting young people. They include The Yard with its anti-bullying message, which will be restaged and will tour areas across Sydney and regional New South Wales beginning on 9 March 2020.

Also during 2020 the company will present In the Zone, which had its premiere earlier this year, and which will be performed at the York Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, from 16–19 September 2020. Developed in collaboration with musician Alon Ilsar, who co-designed the AirSticks that are pivotal to the work, In The Zone combines hip-hop dance with gaming technology to showcase the importance of stepping away from our screens and experiencing the real world. In The Zone will feature Western Sydney hip-hop dancer Libby Montilla.

Study for Bubble, Shaun Parker & Company, 2019.

The company will also develop three new works in 2020 including one with the working title of Bubble. It is a collaboration with Taiwanese bubble performance artist, Mr Su Chung Tai, and will explore such issues as global warming.

More about Shaun Parker & Company is on the company’s website at this link.

  • Site news

As the end of the year approaches I am always interested in which post has received the most views over the year. Although we are not quite at the end of the year yet, I checked the January–November stats to find that the review of Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons, as danced by Queensland Ballet, topped the list by a very big margin. Deservedly so. It was a brilliant production and performance. It was so far ahead of everything else in terms of statistics that I can’t imagine it will be knocked out of first place once December stats are added. In case you missed the post here is the link.

Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
  • Press for November 2019

‘A pleasingly old-school Cinderella.’ Review of Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella on tour to Canberra. The Canberra Times, 7 November 2019, p. 16. My expanded review is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2019

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Featured image: Ryan Stone in Australia Dance Party’s From the Vault, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ryan Stone in Australia Dance Party's 'From the Vault', 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’ Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly

Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet

22 March 2019. The Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

It was a brave move by choreographer Liam Scarlett even to think of making a ballet out of the 18th century French novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The storyline is complicated to say the least. It follows the tale of a wealthy widow, the Marquise de Merteuil, and her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, and their vindictive exploits centring on other, innocent players in their circle. It is filled with the less than honest means used by Valmont and Merteuil to move their tawdry plans forward. It takes a real expert to get across, via the wordless art form of dance, a narrative with so many characters involved in so many clandestine activities.

So how did Scarlett do it, and do it so sensationally?

Firstly, Scarlett has a knack for compressing detail without losing the basic elements of the narrative. So, while I am sure that second and third viewings would make the relations between characters clearer for the viewer, there was no difficulty following who was exploiting whom and in what way. The image below shows Cécile Volanges (Janela Piñera), a young virgin engaged to be married to the Comte de Gercourt (Jack Lister), being seduced by the Vicomte de Valmont (Alexander Idaszak). Valmont’s prize for carrying out the seduction (one of the more insidious acts dreamt up by Merteuil and Valmont) will be a one night stand with Merteuil (Laura Hidalgo).


Lucy Green as Cécile and Alexander Idaszak as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Secondly, Scarlett is truly a master choreographer who can, seemingly with ease, capture mood and character through movement. In the final scene, where Merteuil and Valmont engage in sexual activities, the partnering is spectacular, almost frightening, for the variety of positions in which the Marquise finds herself as she is thrown, swung and tossed through the air. It is vicious sex and leaves little to the imagination.

Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett's 'Dangerous Liaisons'. Quensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly

Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

This is in stark contrast to the joyous waltzing in the scene where Cécile celebrates her social debut, or in the tender love scene between Cécile and her music teacher, Le Chevalier Raphael de Danceny (Rian Thompson), where the choreography, with its fluid, calm partnering, looked as innocent as the emerging love between Cécile and Danceny.

There were moments too when Scarlett’s wonderful ability to make abstract patterns with groups of dancers was very clear. They included a section early in the work when six dancers, servants in Merteuil household (?), had a few moments just to dance, threading their way between each other like a moving tapestry.

But, of all the dancers onstage on opening night, it was Kohei Iwamoto who stood out for me. He was Azolan, valet to Valmont, and his dancing was light, fluid, and technically exact. Iwamoto made every nuance of Scarlett’s choreography clearly visible, from small twirls of the wrist to larger beats and turns. And Scarlett had given him choreography that showed off his lightness, his elevation and his pleasure in dancing. It fitted well with his role as he rushed off with his bag of letters to deliver news of the next outrageous exploit of Valmont and Merteuil.

Kohei Iwamoto as Azolan in Liam Scarlett’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons‘. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo David Kelly

Kohei Iwamoto as Azolan in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Thirdly, Scarlett, with I’m sure the assistance of a company’s coaching staff, makes sure that every dancer performs with an understanding of his or her role. I particularly liked Laura Hidalgo as the Marquise de Merteuil. Apart from those incredible feats in her duets with Valmont, which she handled so beautifully, I loved the personality she projected with every move and every step—she was imperious, superior and beyond reproach (at least in her eyes).

And finally, Scarlett’s collaborators work beautifully with him to advance the narrative. Costumes by Tracy Grant Lord were sumptuous and elegant, befitting the aristocratic strata of French society to which the characters belonged. With sexual activities a persistent feature throughout, we often saw decorative and revealing undergarments with colour indicating character, virginal white for Cécile, red and black for Merteuil. The set design, again by Tracy Grant Lord, was for the most part a simple arrangement of panels that moved, sometimes revolving, to create new spaces. Lighting by Kendall Smith gave colour to the panels as well as setting a mood.

But it was the music that added an exceptional collaborative element to Dangerous Liaisons. Scarlett had worked extensively with arranger Martin Yates and together they had gathered together (Yates refers to their actions as ‘plundering’) a variety of music by Camille Saint-Saens to create a new score. Each character had his or her own musical theme, which perhaps is another reason why the ballet held together so well. And, with a piano teacher as one of the main characters, it was no surprise that piano music featured strongly. The music was played live by Queensland’s Camerata Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nigel Gaynor with piano soloist Roger Longjie Cui.

The dancers of Queensland Ballet looked absolutely stunning throughout Dangerous Liaisons. The performance indicated quite clearly that the company is so much more than a State ballet company. QB is a national treasure.

Michelle Potter, 24 March 2019

Featured image: Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’ Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly


The three 'Ghost Figures' from 'Ghost Dances'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

RAW. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet

17 March 2017, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

One of the most refreshing aspects of Queensland Ballet’s current vision is contained in its repertoire. If Li Cunxin can’t always give us a live musical accompaniment, as was the case with the RAW program, he will always present us, especially in a triple bill, with a program that is provocative or filled with choreography that demands attention in some way.

RAW began with Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, a work made in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of World War I. It was created on English National Ballet and my review of ENB’s production is at this link. The work was very nicely staged on Queensland Ballet by Yohei Sasaki, ENB’s repetiteur. It is a beautifully conceived, designed, lit, and choreographed work, and all the best qualities I recall from my previous experience had transferred well to Queensland Ballet.

This time, with the benefit of having seen the work already, I particularly noticed the group sections from both men and women. I was especially admiring of the swirling, breathtaking lifts, often with airborne elements, during a pas de six between three of the women and their partners; the subsequent pas de deux each of the pairs then executed; and the subtle and moving way the women parted from their men at the end of each pas de deux.

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in 'No Man's Land'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly
Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in a pas de deux from No Man’s Land. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

There was also more emotion than I remembered from the previous occasion in the way the women sat, at times, on the raised area of the set as the men engaged in war activities on the lower space. It was the remarkable Mia Heathcote who drew my attention to this quietly dramatic aspect of the work. There she sat, scrunched over, feeling the pain throughout her body, and making me feel the pain as well.

If No Man’s Land opened the program with a flourish, Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances closed it with equal strength. It probably has extra resonance for those of a certain age who recall the once ubiquitous sound of the haunting music of the Andes, and Chile in particular, played by Inti-Illimani. Ghost Dances, made by Bruce originally in 1981, is set to this music. But this is not to detract from the work’s inherent political message concerning the effects of political coups on the population of the country involved, specifically in this case the 1973 coup d’état in which Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile.

Sophie Zoricic and Liam Geck in Ghost Dances. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Bruce’s choreography is somewhat eccentric, although it fits the music beautifully. And, to their credit, the dancers of Queensland Ballet managed with aplomb the tilts and bends of the body and sometimes the head and neck, the upturned feet, and the ever-flowing movement. The three ghost figures wove their way, insidiously, into the popular dancing. Their presence was powerful and meaningful and the exit of the ‘common folk’ at the end, leaving the ghost figures alone on stage, was stark but expected.

In between these two moving and powerful works was Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto, which Horsman has been working on in stages over a number of years. There were some outstanding technical fireworks, especially in the third movement with very fast chaîné turns from all involved, and some spectacular jumps as well. But the opening movement reminded me rather too much of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as the dancers disappeared into upstage fog, and I longed for more fluidity in the choreography.

Yanela Pinera in 'Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: David Kelly
Yanela Piñera in Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2017

Featured image: The three ‘Ghost Figures’ from Ghost Dances, Queensland Ballet. Photo: © David Kelly

The three 'Ghost Figures' from 'Ghost Dances'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly
Happy New Year

Dance diary. December 2016

  • Happy New Year

May 2017 be a very happy and productive new year for all. My thanks to all those who have logged on to my site during 2016, and special thanks to those who have made comments throughout the year, or made contact in other ways.

My Canberra dance picks for 2016 have already been published by The Canberra Times, and posted, with additional comments, at this link. My ‘best of’ reaching beyond, but including Canberra will appear as part of the annual Critics’ Survey in Dance Australia in the February/March issue.

Perhaps more than anything in 2016 I have been impressed and encouraged by Queensland Ballet—great programming, wonderful dancing, a company on the move. For me, QB’s production of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the 2016 standout across the board. But the company also gave us the fabulously glamorous Strictly Gershwinthe mixed bill Lest We Forget, which included Natalie Weir’s haunting We who are left; and, of course, the warmth and comfort of an old favourite in the Ben Stevenson production of The Nutcracker. I look forward to more from this vibrant company in 2017.

Clare Morehen in Natalie Weir's We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

Clare Morehen in Natalie Weir’s We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

  • On course 2016. QL2 Dance

The On course program has become an annual December event for QL2 Dance. The program offers students taking tertiary dance courses from across Australia to come to Canberra to choreography, collaborate, perform and be mentored. This year, the tenth year of the initiative, nine short new works made up the program.

It was an evening of occasional promise but overall a very mixed bag. Probably the most interesting part of the evening was a question that came from an audience member at the Q & A that followed the showing. A gentleman began his question with the words ‘I am a scientist.’ He then proceeded to ask (with apologies to the gentleman as I am not able to quote him exactly) whether the choreographers aimed to make work that was understandable, and whether they thought of the audience as they created. A long-ish reply ensued with several choreographers making comments, which largely focused on the fact that the choreographers thought more about giving expression to their ideas rather than whether it was understandable to the audience.

What surprised me most of all was that the initial, and perhaps most forceful response, came from Oonagh Slater, currently a tertiary student at the Victorian College of the Arts and a former performer with QL2.  Her solo work was probably the most easily understood of any of the works, despite the title the body series: (corporeality) a progression and despite her comments about not making work with the audience in mind. It was strongly visual and could be easily read as an abstract work about shape, colour, form and space.

Oonagh Slater in her solo work work forOn course, 2016. Photo Lorna Sim

Oonagh Slater in her solo work work for On course, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The episode made me wonder whether young choreographers need better mentoring/teaching? And hats off to the scientist who (I assume) wanted to be able to understand what he was seeing. Why go to a performance otherwise?

  • Press for December 2016

‘A modern take on traditional thrills.’ Review of Circus 1903. The Canberra Times, 6 December 2016, p. 18. Online version

‘In step with youth.’ Feature on Ruth Osborne and her award of a 2017 Churchill Fellowship. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 17 December 2016, p. 11. Online version

‘Rich variety sign of more exciting times.’ Top Canberra dance picks for 2016. The Canberra Times, 27 December 2016, p. 18. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet

27 November 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Truly, madly, deeply

If I were to list all the good things about this pedigree production, it would amount to a catalogue of joy. And what would be wrong with that?

Ethan Stiefel, previous artistic director of RNZB, certainly knew what he was about when he invited Liam Scarlett to choreograph this full-length work, and negotiated a co-production with Queensland Ballet. By all accounts that collaboration has worked very well, so might set a happy precedent for future co-productions. All those in favour…? The work only premiered last year yet is already a classic.

Nigel Gaynor, at the time Musical Director at RNZB, found close rapport with Scarlett and made a wondrous extension of Mendelssohn’s one act incidental music into a two acter by drawing on other of his numerous compositions. With motifs for many characters ingeniously set for string, woodwind and brass sections, plus of course the quijada (jawbone of an ass), Gaynor creates a seamless accompaniment. He also returns to conducts the excellent Orchestra Wellington. This is ballet musicianship at its best.

Tracy Grant Lord as set and costume designer has always known how to make this company look good (witness Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet). With Kendall Smith’s inspired lighting, the ballet grows from a swirl of smoke on a front cloth into a midnight blue faerie world of phosphorescent glowworms, moonlight, madness, mayhem and enchantment.

Liam Scarlett has made a brilliant distillation of the play, missing not a trick by slanting all the poetry into different characters’ experiences of love, true, mad and deep. This is a young but obviously hugely talented choreographer. And then, O my, there’s the dancing…

Qi Huan, former leading dancer has returned (again) from ‘retirement’ to play Oberon, bringing a maturity in his interpretation of a complex character, powerful, proud, duplicit, scheming, sometimes roving into the human world, yet ultimately forgiving (maybe). You hear his every thought as it motivates his every gesture, charging the role with real theatrical power that makes Oberon the central role to the entire ballet in a way new since the premiere season last year.

Tonia Looker is a gorgeous, romantic Titania, quick to claim the Changeling child, swift to fall in love. Her adoration of Bottom the Ass is quite something to behold. The band of ten Fairies shimmering and quivering in spiky blue tutus are as mercurial as the creatures they evoke. Harry Skinner gets maximum comic mileage from his doltish Bottom and creates an endearingly entertaining Ass that invites empathy for this ambiguous role. Shaun Kelly as the dazzling irrepressible Puck is stunning in his role of wicked mischief-maker. You wouldn’t trust him with your grandmother’s thimble. The Lovers are played with great spirit—by Kirby Selchow and Joseph Skelton, with some deeply lyrical dancing, and by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, masters of comic timing. The Rustics are a hoot and they know it.

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Evan Li

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

When all the mayhem is at its wildest, with Puck quaking at Oberon’s wrath, the entire cast of mis-matched lovers—jilted, unrequited, confused, and with the mad rustics in tow—charge on a diagonal across the stage in a comic moment of cartoon art that captures the complexities of the entire plot into a 30 seconds drive-by stroke of choreographic genius. The audience erupts in delight, and Shakespeare the librettist would have been well pleased.

The Changeling child in a onesie, with his toy donkey and bedtime storybook, bookends the whole glorious ballet, winching it in quite close to the world where you and I know of parents who quarrel over who ‘owns’ a child, or who ‘loves’ him more, and where he should live. It is ultimately Scarlett’s triumph to delve into the mystery and chemistry of where love comes from, its turns and tricks and travails that never run smooth, and to flow the faerie in and out of the human world. Take care in shady places. Puck is probably lurking.

There are many warps and wefts of New Zealand and Australia that weave the dancers from the two countries together, and the more you look the more you find. Lucy Green, in a few hours time, will dance Titania in her last performance with RNZB, before returning to Australia to join Queensland Ballet. We’ll be so sad to lose this beautiful dancer, but surely glad that we had such memorable performances from her these past years. Perhaps we’ll charge Puck to steal away her passport?

Lucy Green as Titiania in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo Evan Li

Lucy Green as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

 *********************************

There’s an on-stage class to watch before a performance. Thoroughbreds flexing.

There’s a Q&A session with dancers after a matinee; a pre-performance talk on the music; usually a forum a fortnight before; workshops where children learn the moves for the first 32 bars of Bottom the Ass. There’s a solid printed program, plus  complimentary cast sheets. There’s a production team out back, with highest production values that put numerous tired ‘imperial’ visiting ballet companies well into the shade.  The indomitable Friends are selling subs and t-shirts in the intervals, since that’s what Poul Gnatt told them to do in 1953. A mix of Oberon and Puck, that man. All this amounts to RNZB being the best little ballet company on Earth. (The best big company, for my money, is Hamburg Ballet. What’s yours?)

Only the St.James theatre wine-bar seems not to know how to uncork bureaucracy and pour a glass of bubbly for the happy punters. Another job for Puck perhaps?

Jennifer Shennan, 28 November 2016

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal New Zealand Ballet (2015 season). Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Tonia Looker as Titanaia and Harry Skinner as Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A’'Court