The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Firebird. Royal New Zealand Ballet

Online screening, 27 August-6 September 2021

I was booked to cross the Tasman to see Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent double bill program, The Firebird and Paquita, but the pandemic got in the way yet again. So I was pleased that a stream of Firebird was available, filmed in Wellington on its opening night there on 28 July 2021.

This Firebird was commissioned from Loughlan Prior, choreographer in residence with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and, while Prior used the music of Igor Stravinsky, familiar to many dance audiences, what resulted was a unique take on the story rather than what many might expect from a production named The Firebird. In essence, Prior’s Firebird is about hope in a world plagued by environmental crises and other chaotic matters, and the Firebird is portrayed as a phoenix-like character who gives hope as she rises from the ashes of destruction.

For most of the time the setting is grim and dark and seems mostly to take place in a run down corner of a harbour town where, in the background, we can see the remains of a ship and a gangplank or two that give the upstage area some height. This world is populated by two groups of people, the Wastelanders who work to survive in harsh conditions and the Scavengers who are constantly and sometimes unpleasantly on the lookout for food and water. Occasionally the scene shifts from a corner of this settlement to a forest-like area (no trees, just scrims and darkness) where the search for food and water takes place. The main figure among the Wastelanders is Arrow (Harrison James). He is without water and falls asleep in the forest area where he is discovered by the Firebird (Ana Gallardo Lobaina). After their encounter she gives him a feather, plucked from her body: it is capable of drawing up water from the depths of the earth.

But later the Firebird is captured by the Scavengers, led by the Burnt Mask (Paul Mathews) and his partner Elizaveta (Kirby Selchow). The Firebird is eventually released by Arrow’s partner, Neve (Sara Garbowski), but, angry at having been captured, the Firebird calls on the dark side of her powers to create an inferno that initially engulfs the harbour settlement. Then, drawing on her last remaining strength, she extinguishes the inferno and collapses into Arrow’s arms. Her body bursts into flames. But from the ashes she is reborn and hope fills the world.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina’s performance as the Firebird is an absolute standout, as is Prior’s choreography for her. At times, especially in her first solo, her movement is quite grounded, but at other times her arms have such a beautiful, lyrical quality, and the way she moves her neck and head tells us so much about her character. Her various pas de deux with Arrow are filled yet again with swirlingly beautiful arms and exceptional lifts. The duet after their first encounter is especially interesting. Harrison James’ performance here is at first hesitant and anxious; he is unsure of how to react to the creature he has just encountered. But he shows growing pleasure in the meeting and we see those changes of emotion quite clearly in the choreography and the performance of it.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Harrison James in The Firebird. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Another choreographic highlight is the manner in which Prior develops the idea of the inferno that the Firebird creates. Four dancers surround her and support her as she storms her way around the stage, and at times they gather around her in poses that extend her arms so her wing span looks huge and confronting. Lobaina’s death throes are also beautifully structured and performed, as is her rebirth at the end of the work.

The Firebird and the inferno she creates. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court


There were one or two moments that I thought needed some extra work from Prior. These were times when groups of dancers stood around watching the main events. Often they appeared not to be involved in the action taking place before them and they reminded me of the young ladies of the village in some productions of Giselle who stand around admiring each other’s dresses rather than being involved in the downstage action. On the other hand, the final group dance as the Firebird was reborn was great to watch with everyone joining in the spreading joy.

I was not a fan of some of Tracy Grant Lord’s costumes, in particular the ‘dropped crotch’ pants worn by many of the characters. While such clothes are something of a fashion item these days, they just look daggy to me, although I guess that added to the shabby look (no doubt intentional) that distinguished those characters and the roles they were playing. The costume for the Firebird, however, was quite spectacular in colour, fabric and cut.

I was blown away by Jon Buswell’s lighting and the exceptional use of visuals and animation from POW Studios, including the orange-red flame and sparkling red spots of light that preceded the comings and goings of the Firebird. Then there were the images of water covering the stage and the crashing waves that appeared in the background as chaos began to rage through the settlement. And, after the incendiary red orb, the darkness and the clouded sky behind the ruined ship that made up the main part of the set, the arrival of the light was quietly beautiful, especially the huge, softly-petalled pink flower that replaced the darkness of the sky.

The Firebird is reborn. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

In the end this Firebird has to be seen as an outstanding example of collaborative input from an exceptional team of creative artists. I can’t help wondering if the kind of visual additions of a technological kind that we saw in this Firebird is the way forward. I have seen similar uses of technology by contemporary companies in Australia (Sydney Dance Company springs to mind) but ballet companies often seem to be a little more set in their ways, especially in large-scale narrative works lasting two or more hours, which may not be surprising. But let’s keep moving.

Michelle Potter, 29 August 2021

Featured image: The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 & 9 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This long-awaited premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all. Many are in the team but artistic director and producer, Turid Revfeim, is responsible, and deserves acclaim.

Revfeim has led her stalwart little troupe of dancers in and out, around and back through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (the Minister of Arts might ask questions about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule then’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book then’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget and it’s so hard to keep going?’ (‘Never, never, never. We will dance’). ‘Intrepid’ and ‘indomitable’ are the adjectives they have earned.

There were shades of 1953 and the pioneering endeavours of Edmund Hillary, or perhaps I mean Poul Gnatt, as the performance got under way. The intensely passionate and utterly stunning musicians of New Zealand Trio were right there, just off-centre, upstage left, for the whole performance. By that staging, the three separate choreographies on the program merged as a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. J. S. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for one hour.

There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.  

Scene from Sarah Knox’s Last Time We Spoke. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.

Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.

Scene from Cameron Macmillan’s Helix. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.

Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.

As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 April 2021

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

Transfigured Night. Ballet Collective Aotearoa & Chamber Music New Zealand

15 March 2021, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This was an evening of triumph on several levels. Transfigured Night is the first of six concerts in Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationally touring programme for 2021. Audiences in ten cities will have the chance to witness a performance of light and colour, wit and freedom, deep beauty and poignant poetry, of music and dance making love. We don’t often get to watch that, and we won’t forget it. 

The New Zealand String Quartet have earlier worked with choreographer Loughlan Prior in various projects, and their mutual trust and shared excitement is apparent in every quaver and quiver. That is what will have given lift-off to this project. 

The Ides of March was the day Team Emirates New Zealand won two spectacular races in the America’s Cup series, in boats that fly above the water and turn slow pirouettes in high attitude—even those who know nothing about yachting can see that. The Fowler Centre is not a proscenium theatre space and it’s a challenge to stage dance there (it’s where in 1988 Nureyev performed, which proved a mistake). Here though a great triangular sail, white silk with patterns of colour, designed by dancer William Fitzgerald, is back lit and suspended high above the stage—an inspiration to preface the performance and shape the space.

The opening work was the premiere of a composition, I Danced, Unseen, by Tabea Squire. Laura Saxon Jones enters first, to silence—a curious creature, a lithe and hungry fox perhaps, who sniffs out and inspects the music stands and scores, what is all this about? what are these music scores? can you eat them? Hilarious. The whimsy and teasing continue as the musicians enter, wearing similar costumes as the three dancers, all of them echoing the patterns on the sailcloth overhead. There are naughty interferences from the dancers to the players and their instruments, but these musos are staunch, could play blind, and it would take a lot more than choreographed mosquitoes to throw them. It’s a darling and fun-filled opener.

The Dvorak String Sextet in A major, op.48, was superbly played, and the dancers continued in similar vein to find places in the music where they could actively, passively, openly or surreptitiously involve themselves. The three dancers had a million moves, yet the choreographic vocabulary and style were refreshingly free from clichés of ballet so often seen displayed elsewhere ‘just because we can’. They danced as individuals with personality and spirit, and the freedom that conveyed to the audience seemed liberating.  Hardened chamber music followers with little prior exposure to dance may possibly have found it distracting from the music they have long known and loved well, but not those around me who giggled and applauded and loved it, as indeed did I.  It was a commedia dell’arte romp, full of cheer and light, with inspired little fragments of Hungarian folk dance, dumka and czardas, caught in the many nimble rhythm and tempo changes. Two of those repeated movement motifs carried me back decades to pas and port de bras of the little Russian dance in RAD’s Grade 5 ballet syllabus I have loved ever since 1957, happy and grateful for the reminder. 

(l-R) Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombrowski in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

But peel back now for the major work of the second half, Transfigured Night, early Schoenberg. It proved a choreographic masterwork, and will position Loughlan Prior firmly on the international choreographic scene. It’s a safe bet that there will be future seasons of this work, both here and, when it becomes possible, abroad as well. There wouldn’t be another choreographed work anywhere that so centrally positions the intercourse between music and dance. In that sense it harks back to the masques of 17th century Europe, with costumed musicians traversing the stage, playing from memory, mingling with dancers and actors. At the same time Prior is in full control of a contemporary ballet vocabulary that moves like a fresh nor-easterly wind across our harbour. This skipper knows the local conditions.

The skilful absorption of two massive silk cloths, one red and one white, mirrored the theme of human physical interactions, a couple, a trio, a new couple, moving through their dreams and hopes and fears, their longing and love and loss. It moved the audience, aficionados or not, to responses—‘stunning … sublime … superb … breathtaking. When can we see it again?’  The central role played by Laura Saxon Jones was calm yet nuanced, poetic and powerful. It is good to see her dancing here again after several years absence.

Laura Saxon Jones with musicians of New Zealand String Quartet in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

The choreographer and the three dancers are all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, credit to all concerned, and are now members of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. This new and courageous initiative, directed by Turid Revfeim, is a free-lance ensemble, to date only minimally funded [how courageous is that?], yet poised to offer the country a new and fresh approach to streamlined, clean, clear ballet for our time. The premiere season of BCA, in the Auckland Arts Festival [postponed a fortnight ago due to Covid lockdown] will now instead take place on 8 and 9 April, then in Dunedin Arts Festival on 16 April. We are holding our breath and we won’t be disappointed. The calibre of choreography, dance and music is already assured, with Poul Gnatt’s pioneering spirit in spades. Split Enz have a song—History never repeats. I wager they are wrong.           

Hamish Robb’s superb program notes on music and dance interactions will help keep alive the memory   

Composition: Tabea Squire, Antonin Dvorak, Arnold Schoenberg
Musicians: New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues
Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Dancers: Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald, Tabitha Dombrowski of Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Presenters: Chamber Music New Zealand

Jennifer Shennan, 16 March 2021

Featured image: Scene from Transfigured Night, Ballet Collective
Aoteraoa and New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues, 2021. Photo: © Jack Hobbs

Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior's 'Scribble'. Ballet X Beyond, 2020. Photo: © Daniel Madoff

BalletX Beyond. Four new dance films

In a move to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic, BalletX, a contemporary company based in Philadelphia, PA, recently presented a virtual season of four dance films from four choreographers—Rena Butler, Loughlan Prior, Caili Quan and Penny Saunders. Each choreographer took quite a different approach to the commission and watching such a diverse program was certainly an interesting experience.

Loughlan Prior is well-known to Australian and New Zealand dance audiences. Australian-born and educated in Melbourne at the Victorian College of the Arts, he is currently resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet. He has made work for a range of companies in addition to RNZB, including Queensland Ballet, and his schedule for 2021 includes new works for RNZB, Singapore Dance Theatre, Ballet Collective Aotearoa and Chamber Music New Zealand.

Scribble was his work for BalletX Beyond, as the newly established virtual program is called. It was made on three dancers and filmed in black and white. For me it was the most interesting film of the four, particularly because of its choreographic approach, which blended the vocabulary of ballet (the female dancer, Andrea Yorita, danced on pointe) and contemporary movement. The two male dancers performed strongly with Zachary Kapeluck partnering Yorita throughout, and with Stanley Glover showing his fabulous, long-limbed flexibility and highly expressive hands and fingers.

Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. Ballet X Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff

The ‘scribble’ of the title was created by Glynn Urquhart and consisted of white lines of animation that sometimes seemed to be generated by the dancers’ movements, at other times by the music, and at others simply out of nowhere. Occasionally the animation morphed into figures of the dancers, or vice versa. Danced to a score by Melbourne-based composer Gareth Wiecko and filmed by Daniel Madoff, Scribble was quite mesmerising.

Scribble was the only one of the four films that was not recorded at a site specific venue. The others were filmed across a range of venues in Greater Philadelphia including Natural Lands’ Stoneleigh and Idlewild, el Centro de Oro, Sea Isle City, St Malachi Church, Belmont Stables, and the Navy Yard.

Of the three other works, I found Caili Quan’s Love Letter particularly moving. Quan’s home country is Guam and the music, which was a mixed bag of items, reflected the islands, especially the islands of the Pacific (although a Harry Belafonte song was included). It was something of a meditation on whom and/or what the choreographer loved, and perhaps missed, at particular stages in her life.

The film began on a beach with a beautiful solo from Francesca Forcella who seemed to be searching her mind for remembered moments. The conclusion began with Richard Villaverde dancing on a rooftop overlooking a cityscape. He was eventually joined by Forcella and we could speculate on what their relationship was as they moved towards and away from each other. But in between this beginning and end, the film moved from venue to venue and the whole was structured so we were taken suddenly from place to place, person to person, just as the mind jumps from thought to thought. It was totally engrossing.

Richard Villaverde and Francesca Forcella in Caili Quan’s ‘Love Letter’. BalletX, 2020. Screenshot by Elliot deBruyn

Ricochet, choreographed by Penny Saunders on the subject of the American cowboy, left me a little cold, largely because the choreography was not all that inspiring. There are only so many times when poses that mimic the position taken when riding a horse can generate interest. Similarly with lines of dancers walking through grassland. But the setting, especially the beautiful rural landscape, was a joy to look at, as was the filming so that the whole work looked as though it was showing on an old-fashioned television screen.

The Under Way (working title) is by Rena Butler and it too was choreographically uninspiring. It relied for impact more on camera angles, mime, colour changes and other cinematic techniques. I also found it hard to understand exactly what Butler was trying to say. There were references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Somewhere over the Rainbow from the film version of The Wizard of Oz, statues of prominent people (now considered racist?), racism itself, and other issues. One thing that made sense was the comment of the dancer who closed the work when he spoke about the things he could do. His skin was white and he finished with the sentence ‘I can breathe.’ But it was not clear to me how the rest related to that pertinent, contemporary comment. The Under Way needs a lot of work I think.

This is the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing anything by BalletX. It is a strong company and every one of the dancers has something special to offer. Stanley Glover is spectacular and I especially admired the work of Andrea Yorita for the expressiveness that she offered in every role, and for the way her movement fills the space around her body.

Andrea Yorita in a study for Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Photo: Tara Keating

Access to the works of BalletX Beyond is via a subscription-based streaming platform, which is located at https://www.balletx.org/.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2020

Featured image: Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff

Dance diary. November 2020

This month’s dance diary has an eclectic mix of news about dance from across the globe. I am beginning with a cry for help from a New Zealand initiative, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, led by Turid Revfeim, dancer, teacher, coach, mentor, director across many dance organisations. I am moved to do this as a result of two crowd funding projects I initiated when I was in a similar position and needed an injection of funds to help with the production of my recent Kristian Fredrikson book. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the arts community. It made such a difference to what my book looked like and I will forever be grateful.

  • Ballet Collective Aotearoa

Ballet Collective Aotearoa was unsuccessful in its application to Creative New Zealand for funding to take its project, Subtle Dances, to Auckland and Dunedin in early 2021. The group has secured performances at the arts festivals at those two New Zealand cities. BCA’s line-up for Subtle Dances brings together a great mix of experienced professional dancers and recent graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance. They will perform new works by Cameron McMillan, Loughlan Prior and Sarah Knox.

For my Australia readers, Prior has strong Australian connections, having been born in Melbourne and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Then, Cameron McMillan, a New Zealander by birth, trained at the Australian Ballet School and has danced with Australian Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. And, dancing in the program will be William Fitzgerald who was brought up in Canberra, attended Radford College and has been a guest dance teacher there, and studied dance in Canberra with Kim Harvey.

The campaign to raise money for Turid Revfeim’s exceptional venture is via the New Zealand organisation, Boosted. See this link to contribute. See more on the BCA website.

  • Interconnect. Liz Lea Productions

Liz Lea’s Interconnect was presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra Festival and focused on connections between India and Canberra. The idea took inspiration from the designers of the city of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, and from the fact that Walter Burley Griffin spent his last years in India where he died in Lucknow in 1937. As a result, the program featured a cross section of dance styles from Apsaras Arts Canberra, the Sadhanalaya School of Arts and several exponents of Western contemporary styles.

Promotional image for Interconnect. Photo: © Kevin Thornhill and Andrew Sikorski. Design by Andrea McCuaig

Interconnect was shown at Gorman Arts Centre in a space that was previously an art gallery. Physical distancing was observed, as we have come to expect. I enjoyed the through-line of humour that Lea is able to inject into all her works, including Interconnect. I was also taken by a short interlude called Connect in which Lea danced to live music played on electric guitar by Shane Hogan, and which featured on film in the background a line drawing of changing patterns created by Andrea McCuaig. Multiple connections there!

  • Gray Veredon

Choreographer Gray Veredon has put together a new website set out in several parts under the headings ‘The Challenge’, ‘New Ways in Set Design’, and ‘Influences and Masters’. His themes are developed using as background his recent work in Poland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Gray Veredon’s website can be viewed at this link.

  • Jean Stewart

Jean Stewart, whose dance photographs I have used many times on this website, is the subject of a short video put together by the State Library of Victoria. Jean died in 2017 and donated her archive to the SLV. Here is the link to video. And below are two of my favourite photographs from other sources. I can’t get over the costumes in the background of the Coppélia shot! Is that Act II?

Other Stewart favourites appear in the brief tribute I wrote back in 2017.

  • Jacob’s Pillow fire

Devastating and heartbreaking news came from Jacob’s Pillow during November. Its Doris Duke Theatre was burnt to the ground.

Here is a link to the report from the Pillow.

  • Nina Popova (1922-2020)

Nina Popova, Russian born dancer who danced in Australia during the third Ballets Russes tour in 1939-1940, died in Florida in August 2020. I was especially saddened to learn that her death was a result of COVID-19.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More comments and reviews

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer was ‘Highly Recommended’ on the Summer Reading Guide in its ‘Biography’ category.

Mention of it also appeared on the Australian Ballet’s site, Behind Ballet, Issue # 252 of 18 November 2020 with the following text:

KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON, DESIGNER A lavish new book by historian and curator Michelle Potter takes us inside the fascinating world of Fredrikson, whose rich and inventive designs grace so many of our productions.    MORE INFO

I was also thrilled to receive just recently a message from Amitava Sarkar, whose photographs from Stanton Welch’s Pecos and Swan Lake for Houston Ballet are a magnificent addition to the book. He wrote: ‘Congratulations.  What a worthwhile project in this area of minimal research.‘ He is absolutely right that design for the stage is an area of minimal research! Let’s hope it doesn’t always remain that way.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2020

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and William Fitzgerald in a promotional image for Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aoteaora, 2020. Photo: © Celia Walmsley, Stagebox Photography

The Russell Kerr Lecture, February 2020

by Jennifer Shennan

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

Russell Kerr rehearsing 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl
Russell Kerr rehearsing Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 19 February 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Russell Kerr, 2007

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

2019–Dance Highlights from New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year to all.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 January 2020

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

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet & Orchestra Wellington

6 November 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Hansel & Gretel is choreographer Loughlan Prior’s first full-length ballet, though he has a number of accomplished short works (including a memorable Lark, for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald), as well as choreographed films (including Memory House, for Trimmer) already to his credit. Since this premiere, another of his works, The Appearance of Colourwas recently performed as part of Queensland Ballet’s Bespoke program.

The energised success of Hansel & Gretel reveals the close rapport developed between Prior and composer Claire Cowan, who has produced a colourful and affecting score. Right from the first sounds (‘applause’ from orchestral percussion to walk the conductor to his podium), it is clear that the choreographer and composer share a sense of humour and fun. Conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington miss not a beat or a feat throughout.

Design by Kate Hawley, together with Jon Buswell’s lighting, delivers some striking effects. The opening visual, projected onto a gauze front curtain, is the number countdown of a film reel (the grandchildren whisper to ask , ‘Is this a ballet pretending to be a movie?’). A number of references to black and white silent movies of the 1920s are cleverly choreographed into the first scenes, making fitting resonance from the accompanying orchestra in the pit. A prologue of wealthy characters strutting in the street contrast with the poverty of the family of Hansel, Gretel and parents, with the father unable to sell his street brooms to anyone. There is a poignant scene of the hungry family around the table in their cabin, though the following long love duet between the parents seems to stall the choreographic pace somewhat.

Later, black and white scenes turn into the garish colours of cancan Candyland, aided and abetted by the Ice Cream Witch whose hurdy-gurdy bicycle is a creation Heath Robinson would have been proud of. A large cast of Dew Fairies, a Sandman, numerous confectionery and gingerbread assistants, and spooky creatures of the forest all offer a number of divertissements of entertainment and humour. There are echoes of the 1930s now, of Busby Berkeley film scenarios, with deliberate extravagances that send it in the direction of pantomime, leading, by their own admission, to sensory overload of props and costumes.

Scene from Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: ©Stephen A’Court

Spectacle is preferenced over sustaining the narrative with its dark themes of the original version of the Grimm brothers’ tale. In that regard, Prior has chosen to follow casting of Humperdinck’s opera of the late 19th century, as well as the recent choreographies by Liam Scarlett for the Royal Ballet and by Christopher Hampson for Scottish Ballet. In those versions, the familiarity of the children’s father bullied by a scheming cruel stepmother is converted to their simply being poor but loving parents. This results in a weakening of the dramatic bite and thematic link of evil between both Stepmother and Witch (read in some interpretations as alter-egos of each other).

Different birds are dramatically involved in the original tale—sitting on the roof of the family cottage, stealing the trail of breadcrumbs, leading the children to the Witch’s lair, and finally back home. In this production the only birds are portrayed in a brief scene by child extras, very fetchingly costumed in raincoats with beak-shaped hoods, and carrying brooms to sweep up crumbs. Perhaps more could have been made of the avian potential in the story since birds are often convincingly stylised into ballet.

Highlight memories are of Hansel and Gretel—or should that be Gretel and Hansel since it’s the girl who always takes the initiative and makes sure little brother is in tow —with Shaun James Kelly as a naïve and playful boy, Kirby Selchow as the feisty older sister. The dazzling Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies, delivers radiantly, but also easily shifts into the syncopations of the jazz references that Prior and Cowan have skillfully introduced as cameo sequences.

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

The Ice Cream Witch is played by Katharine Precourt who, with mobile expressive face, clearly relishes the role. The Transformed Witch, played by Paul Mathews, is in full pantomime mode and takes hilarious advantage of the satirical strokes the choreography offers (including the tossing of a pair of pointe shoes into the cauldron, together with a large manny rat that proves inedible but will doubtless flavour/poison the stew). Mathews always inhabits rather than just portrays his roles and here he exaggerates wonderfully without ever wasting a gesture. 

Kirby Selchow as Gretel closes the cauldron in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Thank goodness for curtain calls in character. The dancers have clearly had a rollicking good time in this production which will certainly entertain audiences in the forthcoming national tour.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 November 2019

Featured image: Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Scene from Loughlan Prior's 'The appearance of colour.' Bespoke, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Bespoke 2019. Queensland Ballet

9 November 2019. Brisbane Powerhouse

Bespoke is the generic name given to an initiative started by Queensland Ballet a few years ago to encourage new choreography. This year, which is the first year I have managed to catch the show, the selected choreographers were Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and Loughlan Prior. Briefly, Guerin is a well-established artist working out of Melbourne, Hollingsworth has recently been appointed artistic director of Brisbane’s Expressions Dance company, taking over from Natalie Weir, and Prior is an Australian-born dancer/choreographer currently working with Royal New Zealand Ballet as that company’s resident choreographer. Dancers in the Bespoke program were from Queensland Ballet’s main company along with the company’s Jette Parker Young Artists.

Prior’s work, The appearance of colour, opened the program. It began with the dancers, dressed in skin-coloured, body-hugging costumes by William Fitzgerald, grouped tightly together in a circle of light that grew in size over the first few minutes. The choreography was fast and full of sharp movements. At first there was little use of the stage beyond the circle but gradually a wider area of the stage was used and the dancers began to manipulate small square blocks of white, and later coloured, light, which they occasionally used to form geometric patterns in the darkness that surrounded them.

The second section, the most exciting choreographically, began with a duet between a man and a woman and was distinguished by slow motion lifts and movements where bodies drifted across and around each other. The two dancers were later joined by a third, another man, giving more capacity for bodies to be transferred across, around and over each other. As the section came to an end, the woman was left alone on the stage and we witnessed quite suddenly the arrival of coloured light washing across the stage floor.

In the third section the space was filled with colour in clear contrast to the first two sections where black and white light predominated. The choreography once again returned to faster movement, and we again saw a larger cast of dancers.

The arrival of colour was an interesting idea that Prior says was inspired by thoughts of ‘human responses to colour emerging from darkness’. The lighting, designed by Cameron Goerg, was quite mesmerising and for me overpowered the dancing much the way the use of film footage so often does when used as part of a dance work. Prior’s choreography for the duet/trio in the second section gave most insight into his choreographic talents, but I hope he can avoid having certain features of a work overpowering the choreography.

Guerin’s pointNONpoint occupied the middle part of the program. Whatever Guerin might have written about it, I could only think, throughout the entire piece, of the subtitle of Peter Oswald’s biography of Vaslav Nijinsky—A leap into madness.

pointNONpoint began with a single female dancer wearing a simple translucent grey dress/overshirt and moving her fingers. Progressively she was joined by more and more dancers, some on pointe (including some of the male dancers), others barefoot. Their movements were usually highly eccentric, and often included odd hand and finger movements. Some dancers had red-coloured fingers. But the choreography was also often predictably balletic—échappés to second position, simple retirés, arabesques and other easily recognised on pointe ballet vocabulary. To say it was a mish-mash of movement is something of an understatement.

John Paul Lowe in Lucy Guerin’s pointNONpoint from Bespoke, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

The costumes, designed by Andrew Treloar, got more complicated as each group of dancers joined in. Various kinds of trailing items were attached to the back of the overshirts, while collars, some stiffened and heightened so they almost obscured the dancer’s face, were added. On one or two occasions the stage and dancers were suddenly engulfed by red light, and just as suddenly the red light was removed. To me this work was about accumulation and the progressive arrival of dancers into the group, and the build up of items to the costumes both developed this idea. But there were may facets of pointNONpoint that seemed not to add to anything other than eccentricity.

Hollingsworth’s contribution, From within, occupied the closing section of the program. After struggling with the vagaries of pointNONpoint it was a relief to see something that was a little easier to watch. It was meant to be an immersive experience and the unoccupied white chair, complete with its own spotlight, situated in an upstage corner was (I assume) meant to be for us, the audience. From within also contained the best performance of the entire program, a beautiful solo from Vanessa Morelli. It was danced almost on the spot but Morelli’s exceptionally smooth, flowing dancing was an absolute joy to watch as it coursed through her body.

Choreographically, however, I have to say From within reminded me a lot of what we see from Sydney Dance Company, where movement is meant to evoke emotion. Hollingsworth worked with Sydney Dance under Rafael Bonachela for a number of years as a dancer and then as Dance Director. But despite what seemed like a strong choreographic connection with Bonachela’s style, Hollingsworth’s directing experience is perhaps why From within looked so focused, so beautifully rehearsed and so easy to watch, with its lovely bursts of humour as Siri, everyone’s assistant, was called upon at various times.

Dancers in Amy Hollingsworth’s From Within. Bespoke 2019. Photo © David Kelly

Bespoke 2019 was not the most exciting dance event I have been to this year (or any year). But it’s a great initiative and deserves applause for what it might achieve—if not this time.

Michelle Potter, 12 November 2019

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s The appearance of colour. Bespoke, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Scene from Loughlan Prior's 'The appearance of colour.' Bespoke, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

New Zealand School of Music + Dancers

24 May 2019. The Hub, Victoria University, Wellington    
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Talking about Music, Dancing about Architecture.

A striking performance by New Zealand School of Music last Friday brought instrumental music and dance into unusual proximity. Those who, like myself, believe in the vibrancy of live music and dance interactions are drawn to the alchemy that can result from interwoven performing of both arts.

The Hub is at the centre of students’ common space at Victoria University. It is occasionally used for performance though remains accessible at the edges to students’ coming and going. This creates an atmosphere of openness and something less than the formality of a recital in a dedicated concert space.

Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones with musicians. The Hub, New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Hamish Robb and Beth Chen on piano as Duo Ombré opened with Debussy’s Petite Suite with its resonances of dance rhythm bedded in to the score. These were given welcome comment in Hamish Robb’s spoken introduction.

‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ is a saying attributed to many, and points to the primacy of an original work, and the sometimes superfluous attempts to translate that into verbal form. Robb however has a natural gift of talking about features in the score, and can highlight moments in playing them without sounding in the least arcane. This commentary is both refreshing and helpful to our listening.

Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands was of course quivering with dance life. It’s on record somewhere that Mozart declared he’d rather have been a dancer than a musician, and you can hear what he means. Rachmaninoff’s Six Morceaux was then played and we were invited to ‘listen orchestrally’ to suggestions of colours in the keyboard rendition.  

The New Zealand String Quartet, also based at NZSM, performed the second half of the concert. They played renditions of two dances by Erwin Schulhoff: Alla Czecha and Alla Tango Milonga. Schulhoff’s career was cut tragically short in war time yet what he did compose is full of interest. The big one though, most enthusiastically introduced by cellist Rolf Gjelsten, and also alive with dance rhythms, was Bartok’s String Quartet No.5

Loughlan Prior (centre) and musicians. New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Two dancers—Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones performed to several movements within these works. Their clean and attractive movement was expertly and intimately positioned in and around the musicians, even at times playfully daring to act as conductor to their performing. There were lines and angles suggesting architecture, light images, costume as shared skin, pauses and speeds that emphasised the dance-like qualities of movement of the musicians in performance… and the dancers’ movement seemed to produce an empathy of  visual music.

This is close to the way that Tokelau people behave—different music, different dance, but the same marriage between both.

Jennifer Shennan, 28 May 2019

Featured image: Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones performing with artists from the New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs