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

 Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Image supplied (no photographer named)

2018—New Zealand Dance Year in Retrospect

by Jennifer Shennan

As New Year approaches I like to think back over Old Year and, without consulting notes, check what dance highlights remember themselves.

During 2018 we have lost four treasured and hugely important people from our dance / arts community.

Nigel Boyes, dearest friend and colleague to so many dancers, particularly members of Royal New Zealand Ballet where he was office manager and archivist for many years, and was also a member of prominent Wellington choirs, died in July. (His obituary is on this website).

Sue Paterson, legendary force in the arts, held a sequence of important positions in dance management over decades—at Limbs Dance Company, at Creative New Zealand, at RNZB, as director of the International Arts Festival—and was a generous member of many governing boards. (Her obituary is online at stuff.co.nz).

June Greenhalgh, wife of Russell Kerr who was a stalwart pillar of ballet history in New Zealand, was a foundation member of England’s Festival Ballet. She performed here in the 1959 – 60 season of New Zealand Ballet, but her abiding contribution was as the lifetime companion to Russell. (Her obituary is on this website).

Douglas Wright, giant of New Zealand dance makers, hugely prolific choreographer and indelibly memorable dancer, was rehearsing his last choreography, M-Nod, from the hospice. He was an artist without peer in this country—working also in literature and in visual arts. (A review of M_Nod, and an obituary, are on this website).

To all four of these dear friends and colleagues – Valete. Requiescant in pace,

Haere, haere atu.

———-

In February we were delighted by the spirited response to the inaugural session in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, held at Victoria University. The lecture, on Kristian Fredrikson’s life and work in theatre design, was delivered by Dr. Michelle Potter who has since continued work on her biography of Kristian which is now heading towards publication. The occasion also included the performance of Loughlan Prior’s choreography, Lark, with Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in the cast, and Hamish Robb accompanying on piano.

A trip to Auckland’s Arts Festival was warranted to see Akram Khan’s dramatic and atmospheric production Giselle performed by English National Ballet. Tamara Rojo, the young artistic director and manager of this company, is clearly a leader of intelligent and visionary force. It’s always edifying to check the New Zealand involvement in the history of any dance company and there are several prominent soloist careers to note of New Zealand dancers who performed with English National Ballet, formerly Festival Ballet—Russell Kerr, Anne Rowse, Loma Rogers, Donald McAlpine, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them.

In Wellington’s International Arts Festival, the hugely memorable Loch na hEala/Swan Lake by Michael Keegan-Dolan (of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre fame) had the stellar Alex Leonhartsberger in the lead male role. Alex has previously danced in Douglas Wright productions and it was a renewed thrill to see him in this season. Keegan-Dolan’s work has interested me intensely for some years and I rate him, with Lin Hwai Min and Douglas Wright, as the three choreographers who have kept my world turning for decades. An intriguing new project, under the auspices of this Festival, will next year have Keegan-Dolan in residence here, developing a new work and offering a public involvement for those interested to trace that process.

Betroffenheit, by luminary Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, in collaboration with Jonathan Young, was another highlight of this Festival season. Its theme explored the reactions and after-effects of an unspecified catastrophic event, and suited well the mood of disastrous developments we see in current world affairs, as well as referencing tragedy at a personal level. It proved a remarkable and mature work of theatre.

Closer to home we saw the remarkable season of Meremere by Rodney Bell. This has rightly proved an award winning choreography and performance, produced under the auspices of Malia Johnston’s MOTH (Movement of the Human). Rodney lives and works in a wheelchair, but his mana and charisma in both his life and his dance are the operatives. It takes about five minutes to forget the fact that he’s using a wheelchair. His stories are what matter. Sarah Foster Sproull also made Drift, for Rodney and a female dancer, resulting in a miraculous menuet for our time.

The second half of RNZB’s Dancing to Mozart—in two works by Jiří Kylián—revealed the calibre of both choreography and performance we have been accustomed to from our national ballet company. At New Zealand School of Dance graduation season, two works After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, and Wicked Fish by Cloud Gate choreographer, Huang Yi, proved outstanding. The time-honoured question from Irish poet W B Yeats, ‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?’ always comes to mind when choreography and performance are equally inspirational. There’s a causal connection of course, but it’s a symbiotic and reflexive one between dancer and dance.

Tempo Dance Festival billed Between Two—with works by Kelly Nash and by Douglas Wright. That season, reviewed on this website, is remembered as a most poignantly crafted, perfectly balanced program with birth and death book-ending the life between. No more fitting tribute to Douglas Wright’s astonishing body of work could be imagined. I do not expect to see again anything like this multi-talented artist who was so resolute in communicating his vision. There was a heartfelt memorial service held in his favourite Cornwall Park in Auckland, and then gatherings at both Nga Taonga Film Archive and City Art Gallery in Wellington, to hear tributes and watch fine films of Wright’s work, including the stunning documentary, Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley.

Many were very sorry that Anton Carter’s contract as director of DANZ, the national networking agency, was ended, since he had been a stalwart and popular supporter of dance events and individuals across many different forms and communities. Although now working at Museums Wellington, he continues to attend performances and that is the kind of loyal support, outside the call of duty, that is so appreciated by dance practitioners.

The news is recently announced that Lucy Marinkovich, outstanding dancer/choreographer working independently on projects with her partner and colleague musician, Lucien Johnson, are the joint winners of the Harriet Friedlander award which gives them $100,000 to reside in New York. When asked ‘How long will you stay there?’ they answer ‘Till the money runs out’. I personally and rather selfishly hope they do not get offered something they can’t refuse since I want to continue seeing their fresh and invigorating dance work here. They have wit and style and ideas, together with all the skills needed to bring dance and music alongside each other where they belong. More of that is needed for all our sakes.

In the books department, Marianne Schultz’ history of Limbs Dance Company—Dance for the People— was welcome (see my review in New Zealand Books, December 2018), as also was the memoir of Sir Jon Trimmer—Why Dance ? by Jon with Roger Booth (my review of that is on DANZ website).

As I write this retrospective I am still happily high from last night’s astonishing Indian dance event—the arangetram, or graduation recital, of Leeshma Srirankanathan, student of Sri Vivek Kinra, of Mudra dance school and academy. This was a two hour wonder of solo performing by an extremely talented 18 year old dancer, and the 42nd arangetram directed by Kinra in his 30 years as a master teacher here in Wellington. Leeshma’s Hindu father and Catholic mother were each honoured in the opening prayers and puja of this event. A lesson of peace and tolerance to the world I reckon, if only the world would listen.

We are anticipating the second Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts which will be delivered on Sunday 10 February, on the topic of Russian Ballet companies that visited Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939. It will be delivered at Victoria University of Wellington by Dr. Ian Lochhead, dance critic for The Press, Christchurch. All are welcome, rsvp for further details to jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz

Happy New Year to all readers, and my thanks to Michelle Potter for hosting this website so generously.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2018

Featured image: Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Photo: © Buskar

Nadia Yanowsky and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Strength and Grace. Royal New Zealand Ballet

17 & 18 August 2018. Opera House, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Strength & Grace program consists of  four choreographies by women invited to mark the 125th anniversary of women achieving suffrage, with Kate Sheppard and her many New Zealand followers having led the world in that. It’s Sheppard’s face on our $10 bill, she is honoured in many parts of the country, particularly Christchurch her home town, and is considered by many to be New Zealand’s second most influential person, so a good choice by RNZB to allow choreographies to grow from her inspiration.

Overall, each of the four works has considerable strengths, but it is the dancers’ outstanding performances of commitment and calibre that made the night. I consider one of the works would be a true standout in any context or themed season, but each of them will have appealed to one section or another of the audience. It was in fact easy to find colleagues and friends, both younger and older, who had chosen a different favourite. Thankfully it is not a competition.

The first piece, So To Speak, by American choreographer Penny Saunders, explored the domestic relationships within a family. Kirby Selchow and Loughlan Prior, as Mother and Father, used striking gestures of clarity and fine timing in a highly effective opening motif, around a table downstage left, though the work became somewhat diffused when a large chorus-like cast entered. The use of pointe shoes for the Mothers but soft shoes for the Daughters, with close to identical dress for both generations of women, were subtle design choices lost on many I suspect. Dramatic opportunity to express the tensions between parents and children was lightly referenced, but the music of four different composers made for a somewhat meandering choreographic structure. Nonetheless the work made its mark and the performances were strong.

Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in 'So to Speak', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in So to Speak, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The second piece, Despite the Loss of Small Detail, by New Zealander Sarah Foster-Sproull, was sharp and spunky, and held great appeal for younger audience members. Eden Mulholland provided a lively percussive accompaniment, and the strength of movement delivered by the dancers certainly matched it. Abigail Boyle was a compelling central figure, supported by a somewhat enigmatic group of dancers. One memorable sequence had them stabbing the stage using pointe shoes as weapons, in a trope reminiscent of Akram Khan’s recent Giselle. The fashion-led design choice of costuming brought whimsy to what was nonetheless a serious declaration of independence.

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick
Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

The third work, Remember, Mama, by Australian Danielle Rowe, was to my mind the clearest work overall in both structure and theme. Although it also used four different composers, there was a distinct adjustment within the choreography at each section which made for welcome coherence to its unfolding. Nadia Yanowsky gave a strongly felt performance as The Mother, relating to The Son at various ages played by three different dancers. Shaun James Kelly always dances with quality and was a sparkling delight as the young child, using Mozart’s Ah! Vous Dirais-je Maman to great effect. Fabio lo Giudice was a sultry teenager, but Paul Mathews danced the adult son with a deep empathy and tenderness for his mother that will have touched many. He is a dancer with the intuition of an actor for how to portray character, and is one of the company’s real strengths. The group of men seemed like soldiers lost to the call of war, perhaps. The group of women fought as hard as any soldiers.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Remember, Mama', 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Remember, Mama, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The fourth work, Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly, took as reference one of the pamphlets Sheppard had produced in her stalwart campaigning years, projected as text behind the dancers. (That raised laughs among the audience but would have seemed anything but comic 125 years ago). Of the three composers used, the richest and most eloquent dance music of the whole evening was the Folie d’Espagne of Marin Marais, in a recording by Jordi Savall (the highlight performer of Wellington’s Arts Festival earlier this year). That drew a strong response from the cast of eight women, with particularly galvanised and striking performances from Mayu Tanigaito, Madeleine Graham and Kirby Selchow. Despite many standout performances of the program, a following solo by Selchow gave her a true claim to being the dancer of the evening. The work was at its strongest at that point and might well have finished there, in orbit.

So overall, this is a program of strong choreographic ventures, a few unusual costume design choices, and effective lighting throughout by Andrew Lees. There’s a mosaic of different music compositions (12 in all across four works) and I know that can pose a distracting challenge for musicians and music-followers who tend to stay away because of that. Most memorably there is stunning dancing from a pedigree company that is half the age of the Suffragettes’ achievements

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2018 

Featured image: Nadia Yanowsky and Paul Mathews in Remember, Mama, Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Afterthoughts:
The sightlines in the Opera House are quite different from those in the St. James Theatre where the company usually performs, and that needs to be borne in mind for choreographic staging and video projections, both of which were compromised on several occasions. (My two immediate neighbours left at half-time since their view was seriously affected, and the seats were not classed as restricted viewing at the box office). The sound system is also perhaps settling in, and music volumes were at times uncomfortably loud.

This Wellington season of only two performances, and no tour to other centres, has left many dance followers further afield hoping for a future opportunity to see this program. The company website lists “Details Soon” for the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Awards towards the end of the year, now in its fourth year, so they may be planning to attend that season instead. New choreography brings fresh blood, and these stalwart dancers always perform, new work and old, as though lives depended on it. JS

Dance diary. Feburary 2018

  • Russell Kerr Lecture

In February I had the pleasure, and honour of presenting the inaugural Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet and the Related Arts in Wellington, New Zealand. I spoke about the life and career of Wellington-born designer Kristian Fredrikson, of whom New Zealanders are rightly proud (as indeed are we Australians).

The lecture was made possible by a fund, recently established by a group of New Zealanders, to honour Russell Kerr, artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (as it was initially called before receiving its Royal Charter) from 1962 to 1968. Kerr went on to hold many significant positions in the dance world and to choreograph many works for Royal New Zealand Ballet, including acclaimed productions with designs by Fredrikson of Swan Lake (1996), Peter Pan (1999) and A Christmas Carol (2001). The Russell Kerr Lecture will be offered annually for five years and plans are moving ahead for the 2019 lecture, which will be delivered by Dr Ian Lochhead.

The 2018 lecture was preceded by a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Lark, a short but moving work by Loughlan Prior featuring Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald. Both dancers gave an exceptional performance. Live music was provided by Hamish Robb and Beth Chen from the New Zealand School of Music. Here is what Jennifer Shennan wrote about Lark last year on this website:

Lark, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, of Royal New Zealand Ballet, performed by Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald, proved a masterwork. There’s little surprise in that since Prior has already earned considerable choreographic kudos. 78 year-old Trimmer’s presence on stage, before he even moves a muscles, reeks with the authenticity of a performer who deeply knows how dance works. Fitzgerald moves with a calm clarity that makes virtuosity seem effortless, and his elevation is something to savour. Suffice to say this piece portraying an older dancer as he sifts memories of dances past, alongside a younger dancer’s questing after the kinds of things that will bring meaning to his future performances, had a poignancy to treasure.’ (Jennifer Shennan)

See this link for a podcast from Radio New Zealand in which presenter Lynn Freeman and I talked about Fredrikson’s career. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to have the spelling of Fredrikson’s name corrected on the RNZ web page.

  • The Piano, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Piano, with choreography by Jiri Bubenicek, opened late in February in Wellington. Stay tuned for Jennifer Shennan’s review.

(l-r) Hazel Couper, Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'The Piano', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
(l-r) Hazel Couper, Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in The Piano, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet
  • Press for February 2018

Critics survey 2017. Dance Australia, February/March 2018, pp. 31–32. See this link for a PDF version of my selections.

Featured image: Follow this link for a PDF copy of the lecture handout.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2018