Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet for the past 11 years, today announced that, due to ill health, he will retire at the end of the 2023 season. At the same time, his wife Mary Li, also with health concerns, will retire from her role as ballet mistress and principal repetiteur with the company.
Li’s contribution to the growth of Queensland Ballet has been quite exceptional. His input has included a doubling of the number of dancers in the company, which now stands at 48 artists; the development of a young artists’ scheme with the Jette Parker Young Artists Program; the growth of an Academy situated at Kelvin Grove State College; the development of the Thomas Dixon Centre as home to Queensland Ballet with the inclusion of a very accessible small theatre; the expansion of company activities to the Gold Coast; and the growth of philanthropy, touring and community activities.
His choice of repertoire has been of exceptional significance too. I have admired in particular his triple bill programs, which always give audiences a varied understanding of the range of styles and subjects that ballet can encompass.Li’s Choice in 2022 was outstanding and I described it as ‘an absolute cracker of a triple bill [showing] Li as a great director’. He has encouraged the work of Australian. choreographers, both established and emerging, and has also staged works from a range of overseas-based choreographers whose productions have not often (if ever in some cases) been seen in Australia. It is hard to forget, for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Liam Scarlett, which was created in conjunction with Royal New Zealand Ballet while that company was under the direction of Ethan Stiefel, and which will tour to Canberra in October.
But perhaps more than anything, Li (and his staff of teachers and coaches) has developed the performance standard of the company to a new level of excellence. His dancers perform with such a love of dance and such a desire to give to the audience. They show a strong and visible engagement with all aspects of a production and it is simply heartwarming to watch them.
Speaking of his retirement Li said:
I am tremendously proud of the company I see before me today. Queensland Ballet stands proudly on the world stage in performance, pathways and participation. I will never be far away but as I take this time and the organisation continues to thrive, I know I am leaving the company in a strong position. While I am very proud of the company’s growth, the major projects we have undertaken and the dreams we have fulfilled, I’m mostly proud of the fact that Queensland Ballet is completely set up for success. Our foundations are stronger than ever and I’m proud to be a part of that legacy.
Queensland Ballet will begin a search for a new director shortly.
Personal recollections I have many fond memories of Li in various of his roles from performer to artistic director. In particular I am pleased that I had the opportunity to record an oral history interview with him for the National Library of Australia in 2019 (TRC 6989 currently needing written permission to access). Vivid in my mind too is LI’s astonishing leap onto the stage in the opening moments of Jiří Kylián’s Sinfonietta with the Australian Ballet in 1997. ‘A soaring entrance,’ I wrote in Dance Australia, followed by the words ‘enthralling jumps and superbly controlled arms’. But perhaps my strongest recollection goes back to c. 1996 when Maina Gielgud was artistic director of the Australian Ballet and was extraordinarily generous in allowing me to watch company classes. I recall on several occasions Li would stay in the studio after class was officially over and practise manège after manège of spectacular grand allegro steps. He would always finish right in front of me, kneeling, and with a flourish of the arms to second position—always a showman.
Li will never retire from being a dancer at heart and I wish him and his wife every happiness in the future.
Dance for Ukraine, a humanitarian appeal to raise money for Ukraine and its people, was put together and directed by Alina Cojocaru (Romania) and Ivan Putrov (Ukraine). It was staged on 19 March 2022 at the London Coliseum and was streamed on Marquee TV making it accessible for those of us who live outside London. It was a great opportunity to see a range of artists dancing a range of choreography, some of it familiar, some not, some filled with sadness and mourning, some filled with joy and hope. It was also a great opportunity to donate via the (minimal) cost to stream, with the possibility of making a further donation as well.
The gala opened with a dramatic and moving rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem. This powerful and emotion-filled singing by a small choir of voices led by Ksenia Nikolaieva was followed by short, spoken introductions by Cojocaru and Putrov, who trained together as children in Kyiv. Then the dancing began.
It was a initial shock that the first dance was a pas de deux from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. I am lucky enough to have seen this work twice, once with English National Ballet, who commissioned the work in 2014, and once with Queensland Ballet, who staged it in 2017. It is an extraordinary work and my initial shock was nothing to do with its appropriateness for the gala. It was appropriate as this pas deux concerns a woman’s reaction to her realisation that the man in her life was not returning from war. My feeling of shock was that we were seeing a work by Scarlett, one which I thought I would never see again. It was, however, an exceptional experience to see once more the sense of loss conveyed by Scarlett’s choreography and, of course, death is now part of the Scarlett story so a certain degree of symbolism could easily be felt. The Act II pas de deux from Scarlett’s version of Swan Lake was also featured later in the program.
Looking at the program as a whole, the standout dancer for me was Francesco Gabriele Frola partnering Mayara Magri in the Ali and Medora pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Frola is now a principal with English National Ballet and his technique and stage presence are spectacular. He is one of those dancers who gives one goose bumps from the minute he steps onstage, not to mention the gasps that can’t be held back when watching his manèges, his beats, his turns and his beautiful attention to his partner.
Also highly interesting were two male solos—The Dying Swan danced by Cuban born Javier Torres with choreography from Michel Descombey and Lacrymosa danced by Royal Ballet first soloist Luca Acri with choreography by Edward Stierle. This Dying Swan was a far cry from the Anna Pavlova version with which many are more than familiar. It had a very human element to the choreography as we watched a man, whose life seemed to be crumbling under physical pressures, hover closer and closer to death, although fluttering hands and arms paid service to the original solo. Luca Acri danced his solo, Lacrymosa, to a section of Mozart’s Requiem and showed off a stunning technique full of control, fluidity and power.
There were some items that were not so steeped in sorrow. I enjoyed a beautiful performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux danced by the magnificent Marianela Nuñez partnered by Reece Clarke and also a work I had never seen before, one of Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes danced by Junor Souza and Emma Hawes. The Stevenson work, danced around and on a portable barre, was quite simple but beautiful in the way it showed an arrangement of shapes that can be put together by two dancers working with a strictly classical vocabulary. Then there was a performance of the grand pas de deux from Carlos Accosta’s production of Don Quixote performed with panache by Miki Muzitani and Mathias Dingman.
Other works included a section from FAR by Wayne McGregor, an extract from John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias with Alina Cojocaru and Mathieu Ganio, a section from Bournonville’s La Sylphide, a work called Ashes choreographed by Jason Kittelberger and danced by Natalia Osipova, and a section from Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem.
Cojocaru and Putrov have said ‘We are united in our belief that art can and must stand up for humanity. So many of our fellow artists believe the same and have joined us to show their support for the people of Ukraine in this moment of need.’
Michelle Potter, 26 April 2022.
With thanks to Elliott Franks for permission to use his images. The streaming of Dance for Ukraine on Marquee TV ended on 24 April.
The year everywhere saw curtailment of a number of dance events but the resilience in dancers’ responses still gave us plenty of highlights to savour …
Ballet Collective Aotearoa launched its long-awaited premiere season, Subtle Dances, in the Auckland and Dunedin Arts Festivals early in the year. Artistic direction of BCA by Turid Revfeim, to establish a new national independent ballet enterprise, is supported by her troupe’s pioneering and committed spirit that refuses to let funding challenges affect their vision, as further festival bookings eventuate and new sponsorship initiatives are waiting in the wings. BCA achieved an outstanding professional level of dance and music presentation with this triple-bill that premiered choreographies by Sarah Knox, Cameron Macmillan and Loughlan Prior, in collaboration with the New Zealand String Trio, who played onstage throughout. This was chamber performance of the highest order, and impressive that the two arts could bring such coherence to a triple-bill. It was further affirmation to see Abigail Boyle, nationally treasured dancer, performing at her peak. Young company member Kit Reilly is one to watch out for (he has recently received the inaugural Bill Sheat Memorial Award for a dancer prepared to commit to New Zealand identity in their career).
Later in the year Loughlan Prior achieved what is arguably his finest choreography—Transfigured Night, beautifully themed to the Schoenberg score, performed by New Zealand String Quartet in a NZChamber Music national tour, in an impressive staging where musicians and dancers again shared the stage space. The calibre of choreography, fine dancers and fabulous musicians ensured that the totality was greater than the sum of its considerable parts. That doesn’t happen just by cutting the stage into two halves, but grows out of the skill and vision of the choreographer, and willingness of the musicians to take risks (NZSQ have always been up for that). Laura Saxon Jones, another much valued New Zealand dancer, was here in her prime, as Prior, who knows her work well, intuited exactly how to create a searingly memorable role for her. Thanks to inspired set and costume design by William Fitzgerald (who also danced in the work), the unlikely space of the Fowler Centre was transformed into a grail of poignant and poetic beauty. At the end, audience members, primarily music followers, were either on their feet or reduced to tears by this outstanding work, which would hold its strength in any venue worldwide. Perhaps it is music audiences that will enlarge a future following for dance as they find music treated with equal respect as choreography, without distracting interruptions of shouting and whistling that haul balletic virtuosity out of the context of choreography (as though dancers need encouragement to tackle the next entrechat or pirouette).
Lucy Marinkovich brought her remarkable Strasbourg 1518 back to Circa Theatre after its premiere season there was cut short last year. It remains the most powerful experience of dance theatre seen here in a very long time, and its Auckland season also made huge and visceral impact. Lucien Johnson’s sound design plus saxophone drove the performers into the stratosphere. I remember the narrator from the original production, France Hervé, for the remarkable transition within her role that edged its way through the performance. No easy way to turn that alchemy into words.
Bianca Hyslop choreographed and Rowan Pierce designed Pohutu, performed for the Toi Poneke gallery, a highly effective setting for a work of empathy with unfolding references to both geographical landscape and mental inscape.
The New Zealand School of Dance graduation offered a program of interesting contrasts within the classical and contemporary vocabularies, and I felt thrilled to encounter the choreographic instinct and potential of Tabitha Dombrowski’s new work, Reset Run.
Vivek Kinra’s company Mudra presented Navarasa, to his customary highest standard of Bharata Natyam, a consistent contribution to Wellington’s artistic life for decades. One of my favourite things is to observe a dance class, to sight the seeds planted that over time grow into performance. It’s one of the ways to prepare for the privilege of writing about dance in its ephemeral, enduring path. Kinra is one of the most naturally gifted dance teachers across all genres in Wellington, in his command of discipline that is shared with, but not imposed upon, his students. In this Indian dance form there is a wonderful continuity between studio and stage which offers a cleansing and rewarding experience.
I attended a spirited gathering at Parliament, where a book documenting the Irish population resident in New Zealand was launched. Every address was laced with a song, as we are so accustomed to in Maori whaikōrero (oratory) and following waiata (song) but it was especially apparent here that Celtic dance is as readily available as song, poetry, literature, instrumental music—fiddle and pipes—as affirmations in Irish communication. No choreographer to be named here—just dancing from the heart.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s restaging of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought us many poignant reminders of the premiere season in 2016 and its stellar cast. Previous artistic director Ethan Stiefel had initially proposed and negotiated with Queensland Ballet for the two companies to share a series of productions, which was a truly exciting prospect. Queensland Ballet did mount A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 but after that, unfortunately, the project did not proceed further. But the calibre of choreography and design (Tracy Grant Lord) of Dream remains intact. It was Scarlett’s masterstroke to frame the plot with a prologue of the young child caught between fractious parents yet resolved by the epilogue, hence the genius to telescope a 500 year old theme into contemporary society. That Liam Scarlett died at 35, earlier this year, is something that Shakespeare, in heartbreaking tragedy, would be challenged to account for.
I watched on Sky Arts several sizzling programs of documentary/performance by Flamenco artists, memorably Rocio Molina. The best-made dance films for my eye are those of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, superb record of the company’s prolific repertoire in perpetuity, and their viewings always prompt me to send a message to everyone in my contacts list to watch if at all possible.
Dance reading helped fill some of the quieter stretches of the year—Michel Meylac on Russian Ballet emigrés was exactly what it claimed—whereas I found totally delightful surprise, when reading the fresh and fabulous Zadie Smith—Feel Free—to happen upon her essay Dance Lessons for Writers, in which she brilliantly couples and compares Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly … ‘aristocracy v. proletariat…the floating and the grounded …’; Harold Nicholas & Fayard Nicholas … ‘propriety and joy, choose joy…’; Michael Jackson & Prince; Janet Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé; David Byrne & David Bowie; Rudolf Nureyev & Mikhail Baryshnikov… ‘the one dancer faced resolutely inwards, the other is an outward-facing —artist…’. It’s heartening to find such perceptive analysis from a writer who is not exclusively describing dance performances, but who can trace and evaluate how these technical and aesthetic qualities resonate with the rest of our experiences.
For the fourth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, Anne Rowse brought her own 90 years alongside her decades of friendship with 91 year old Russell Kerr to trace their parallel careers—and what fabulously sustained careers those have been. The event was coupled with a celebration of Michelle Potter’s book, Kristian Fredrikson, Designer, generously supported by the Australian High Commission.
The same event also saw the launch of DNA—Dance Needs Attention, a networking enterprise to invite artistic associates to support each other as individuals in independent dance studies and writing projects. Among early tasks was the opportunity for me to read the manuscript of associate Ashley Killar’s forthcoming biography of John Cranko—a fascinating read and one certainly to watch out for.
2022 will see Patricia Rianne, in the fifth lecture of the RKL series, trace her own life and career—including the ballet, Bliss, that she choreographed after a Katherine Mansfield story, for New Zealand Ballet in 1986. There will be several seminars throughout following months in which we will celebrate Poul Gnatt’s arrival in New Zealand in 1952, when he first taught open classes in Auckland as the Borovansky Ballet toured here, before he founded the New Zealand Ballet the following year.
May we all be safe and sound through 2022… 100 years since James Joyce published Ulysees, TS Eliot published The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf is writing, Katherine Mansfield is writing… and Sergei Diaghilev invited Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Erik Satie and Clive Bell to dine together in Paris at the Majestic hotel. Wonder what was on the menu that night. Choreographic scenario, anyone?
David McAllister awarded Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award
Congratulations to David McAllister, recently retired artistic director of the Australian Ballet. McAllister received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award at a special event in Sydney, an award administered by the Royal Academy of Dance. McAllister joins a group of extraordinary individuals from the world of ballet who have been recipients of this award. They include Frederick Ashton, Maina Gielgud, Robert Helpmann, Gillian Lynne, Rudolf Nureyev and Marie Rambert. McAllister has had what is perhaps an unprecedented career with the Australian Ballet. Following training at the Australian Ballet School beginning in 1961, he was a performing artist with the company for 18 years followed by a role as artistic director for another 20 years.
But in particular see (and listen) to this enticing McAllister story from the National Portrait Gallery inspired by the Peter Brew-Bevan portrait used as the featured image above.
Tammi Gissell and Mundaguddah
Mundaguddah is a dance/music collaboration between composer Brian Howard and dancer/choreographer Tammi Gissell. It will premiere on 9 May 2021 at the National Gallery of Australia during Australian Dance Week and is a co-presentation by Ausdance ACT and the Canberra International Music Festival. It will have two showings only, at 12pm and 2 pm.
In Mundaguddah (the spirit of the Rainbow Serpent in Murrawarri language), Gissell explores the idea of personal pre-history in a tribute to the Murrawarri spirit who demands we look, listen, and keep moving in the right direction.
Tammi Gissell has featured previously on this website, especially for her work with Liz Lea. Follow this link to read earlier posts. To buy a ticket to Mundaguddah, and to read a little more about the legend of the Rainbow Servant, follow this link.
The GOLDS. Tenth anniversary
It’s a little hard to believe that the GOLDS, Canberra’s dance group for older people, is ten years old. But the group celebrated its tenth anniversary in April 2021 with performance excerpts from some of its previous shows, along with a new work, Forever Young, from founder of the GOLDs, Liz Lea. Perhaps the most memorable performance excerpt for the evening was that from Martin del Amo’s Grand Finale, which was originally one section from Great Sport!, an award-winning production held at the National Museum of Australia in 2016. Program notes written by del Amo for the Great Sport! show described Grand Finale as, ‘A team of elegantly clad men and women. engaged in a mysterious game. Collectively celebrating diverse individuality. On their own terms…’
The celebratory event also included short speeches by a number of people connected with the GOLDs group, including two of the current directors of the group, Jacqui Simmonds and Jane Ingall; founder Liz Lea; and Ruth Osborne who spoke on the role the GOLDs have played with QL2Dance. For more about the GOLDs and their performances see this tag.
Australian Dance Week 2021
In the ACT Australian Dance Week 2021 was launched at Belconnen Arts Centre on 29 April, International Dance Day, by ACT Minister for the Arts, Tara Cheyne. The event celebrated diversity in dance and included a message from Friedemann Vogel at Stuttgart Ballet, along with performances of Indigenous dance as part of the Welcome to Country, as well as short performances of pop n lock, Indian and burlesque dance.
Check out the latest playlist from Jacob’s Pillow featuring clips from performances at the Pillow from flamenco dancers. Here is a link. I have never seen flamenco ‘on pointe’ before, but Irene Rodriguez in the 2019 performance clip from Amaranto shows us how it is possible. Amazing work from her.
Updates and fixes were carried out on the website during April. The main fix was to the search box. It had somehow collapsed and was not retrieving search terms as it should. It is now fixed, thankfully. I also had added, thanks to the team at Racket, a new ‘subscribe’ option. It is now on the home page just under the box headed ‘View full tag cloud’.
Visits to the site have increased dramatically over the past few months with page views going from around 3-4,000 to 8-9,000 a month. Perhaps not surprisingly the most visited area during April was the tag Liam Scarlett.
Thanks to all those who follow On dancing.
Press for April 2021
From Michelle: Review of The Point by Liz Lea Dance Company. Limelight, 30 April 2021. Online magazine only at this link.
From Jennifer: Obituary for Liam Scarlett. Dominion Post, 30 April 2021, p. 19. Online version,
One of the most exceptional choreographers of the 21st century, Liam Scarlett, has died aged just 35. How lucky we were in Australia to have had the opportunity to see three of his works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dangerous Liaisons and No Man’s Land, all performed by Queensland Ballet. In addition, Scarlett’s new staging of Swan Lake, made for the Royal Ballet in 2018, is readily available on DVD.
Our New Zealand colleagues saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream before we did in Australia, first in 2015, and Royal New Zealand Ballet is reviving the work later in 2021. RNZB’s response to Scarlett’s death included the photo below with a special caption that read, ‘In loving memory of our friend and colleague Liam Scarlett. His creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream filled our studios with joy, and our stages with magic.’
There have been many comments from around the world on the subject of his death with calls for explanations to be given by various organisations, but nothing can take the place of the words of those who worked with him and those who saw his productions and were astounded by his remarkable abilities. In addition to the posts on this website at this tag and RNZB’s words above, see for example comments from dancers Jack Lister and Laura Hidalgo on the Limelight tribute, and from Karen van Ulzen, editor of Dance Australia, who wrote in a weekly email newsletter, ‘I adored Liam Scarlett’s choreography. When the Queensland Ballet brought his A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Melbourne a few years ago, it was one of those rare occasions when you know you are completely in the hands and imagination of a master.’
Scarlett’s death is a huge loss and we no longer have him beside us giving us works that demonstrate his astonishing talent. Like most of us I am heartbroken, but I’d rather not cast blame or demand explanations but remember the joy he has given to audience members and dancers alike.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.