Alan Alder as Hakuryo in Robert Helpmann's 'Yugen'. The Australian Ballet 1965. Photo: Walter Stringer

Alan Alder (1937–2019)

Alan Alder, who has died in Perth at the age of 82, was born in Canberra of Scottish/Australian parentage. In Canberra he initially studied tap and Scottish highland dancing with June Hammond. Later, while at Canberra High School, he took ballet lessons with Barbara Todd, a former Sadler’s Wells Ballet soloist who had come to Canberra when her husband took up an appointment at the Australian National University.

Winning a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in 1957, he studied there for a short time, largely with Harold Turner, before joining the Covent Garden Opera Ballet, where he worked for the next twelve months. His experiences with that company included dancing in productions featuring artist such as Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. ‘It was an incredible education I had in that one year,’ he recalled in an oral history interview conducted in 1999.

In 1958 Alder joined the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. He was promoted to soloist and toured extensively with the company throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Africa over the next four years. His touring schedule included the 1958-59 tour to Australia and New Zealand. Of his experiences on tour in Australia he recalled, in addition to the variety of roles he performed, a total blackout in Sydney’s Empire Theatre. ‘There was John Field onstage with hurricane lamps rehearsing the swans in the second act of Swan Lake,’ he said. He also remembers ‘Midnight Matinees’ towards the end of the Australian tour, which were fundraisers for victims of bush fires that devastated areas of Australia in 1958.

Alan Alder in Coppelia. Royal Ballet Australasian tour, 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer

At the invitation of Peggy van Praagh, Alder returned to Australia in 1963 to join the Australian Ballet as a senior soloist. He was promoted to principal artist in 1969, and later was a guest artist with the company from 1978 to 1980. With the Australian Ballet Alder danced many principal roles in a wide selection of ballets. He scored particular success as Alain in La Fille mal gardée, a role he danced initially with the Royal Ballet in 1961, and again with the Australian Ballet on many occasions from 1968 onwards. But other works, new and old, in which he took leading roles included Melbourne Cup, ThresholdSebastianGisellePineapple Poll, Lady and the FoolOthelloRomeo and JulietYugen, and Carmen.


Alan Alder as Jasper the Pot Boy with Maria Lang in Pineapple Poll. The Australian Ballet, 1976. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Alder married fellow dancer Lucette Aldous in 1972. In the mid 1970s both Alder and Aldous were invited by the Russian ministry of culture to study teaching methods in the USSR. In St Petersburg they studied Boris Kniaseff’s floor barre and the Vaganova system of training. The opportunity to visit Russia came at a time when the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had just signed a cultural agreement with the USSR and Alder and Aldous were the first Australians to go to Russia under that agreement. Alder recalled:

‘We gained tremendous insight into the ideology of Agrippina Vaganova and also, in the short amount of time we had, we crammed as much as we could into learning on our bodies how to pass on that system, not necessarily just the choreography of the actual exercises, the enchainments, but the reason behind doing them.’

Following his departure from the Australian Ballet in 1980, Alder took up part-time teaching with Dame Margaret Scott and Anne Woolliams. In 1983 he was appointed to head up the dance department at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, a position he held until 1991. He then took up a teaching position at the Perth Graduate College of Dance. His involvement with Ausdance (WA) began in 1987 and his contribution to that organisation was recognised with a life membership.

In 2004, Alder and Aldous were jointly recognised as State Living Treasures by the Government of Western Australia. The citation included the words ‘outstanding contribution to dance’ and ‘dedication as advocates for the development of dance in Western Australia.’

Alan Richard Alder. Born Canberra, 14 September 1937; died Perth, 15 July 2019

Featured image: Alan Alder as Hakuryo the Fisherman in Yugen. The Australian Ballet, 1965. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia.

Alan Alder as Hakuryo in Robert Helpmann's 'Yugen'. The Australian Ballet 1965. Photo: Walter Stringer

Michelle Potter, 15 July 2019

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in The Merry Widow, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet (2018)

12 May 2018, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

If you enjoy sitting in the theatre and being swept away by waltzes and ladies being lifted high in the air by their male partners, along with elaborately decorated costumes and sets and nothing too challenging in the way of storyline, then the Australian Ballet’s Merry Widow is for you. This production was last seen in 2011 but dates back to 1975 when it was commissioned by Robert Helpmann as the first full-length ballet to be made on the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by Ronald Hynd, designed by Desmond Heeley, with music by Franz Lehar arranged by John Lanchbery, and a scenario by Helpmann, it was in the early days closely associated with Margot Fonteyn. She performed the role of the Widow, Hanna Glawari, in Australia as well as elsewhere during guest seasons with the Australian Ballet.

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in 'The Merry Widow', 1977. Photo Walter Stringer

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in The Merry Widow, 1977. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

But Australian Ballet principals of the day, including Marilyn Rowe, Marilyn Jones, Lucette Aldous, John Meehan and Kelvin Coe, and others throughout the years, also made it their own. Rowe was repetiteur for this 2018 production.

In the cast I saw Amy Harris and Brett Simon danced the leading roles of Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo Danilowitsch, former childhood sweethearts whose attraction to each other is eventually renewed. While they both danced strongly, for me their involvement in the unfolding story was not the highlight of the show. On the other hand, I admired Sharni Spencer and Joe Chapman as the secondary leads of Valencienne and Camille, the Count of Rosillon. They invested more into the realisation of their characters and, as a result, were much more captivating to watch. And their pas deux in Act II, was really the choreographic highlight amongst all the waltzes and other predictable steps.

There was some strong character work from the male corps de ballet of Pontevedrian dancers in Act II and my attention was especially drawn to a gentleman, who I think was Joseph Romancewicz. He not only danced well but maintained his character when not dancing. It doesn’t always happen and when it does it is very noticeable.

Audiences love this ballet and it is clearly a money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, but after more than forty years I think it needs a redesign. Heeley’s costumes are individually glamorous and suitably of the Belle Epoque period, if sometimes rather too strongly coloured. But when seen en masse against his over lavish sets, and when lit with strong theatrical lighting, the overall design is unsubtle and inelegant to the point of seeming tasteless.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2018

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet as Can Can ladies in The Merry Widow, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Manon, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. March 2018

  • La Scala Ballet

Queensland has scored another coup in its QPAC International Series with La Scala Ballet from Milan to perform in Brisbane in November 2018. The company will perform two works, Don Quixote (Nureyev production) and Giselle. Further details at this link.

  • In the footsteps of Ruth St Denis

Liz Lea’s film that follows the trail of Ruth St Denis and others in India in the early part of last century is due for its first screening later this year. Follow this link to my previous post about this venture and stay tuned for further news.

Liz Lea during filming in India

  • On view. Thinking bodies, dancing minds

An exhibition of Sue Healey’s dance films will be on show in Melbourne from 13–28 April at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Dodds Street, Melbourne (VCA). It is in celebration of the 40th anniversary of VCA Dance and will feature films relating to the careers of Lucette Aldous, Nanette Hassall and Shirley McKechnie, former teachers at the College, and recent graduates Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock and James Batchelor.

  • Press for March 2018

‘Emotional power charges an astonishing work.’ Review of RED by Liz Lea. The Canberra Times, 12 March 2018, p. 20. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2018

Featured image: Don Quixote, La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano

Dance diary. August 2015

  • New Breed: Sydney Dance Company

Early in August Sydney Dance Company announced the four recipients of commissions to create works for the company’s New Breed initiative. Kristina Chan, Fiona Jopp, Bernhard Knauer and Daniel Riley will present their dances at Carriageworks in a season running from 8 to 13 December. Commissions have also gone to independent designers Matt Marshall and Aleisa Jelbart, and musician/composers Nick Thayer, James Brown, Jürgen Knauer, Toby Merz and Alicia Merz, who will contribute to the creation of the works, which will be performed by artists from Sydney Dance Company.

The four New Breed 2015 choreographers . Photo: Peter Greig

The four ‘New Breed’ choreographers for 2015 (l-r: Fiona Jopp, Kristina Chan, Daniel Riley and Bernhard Knauer). Photo: Peter Greig

Performance details at this link.

  •  Don Quixote: the film

During my recent foray into the career of Lucette Aldous, as a result of Sue Healey’s short film on Aldous, I came across the photograph below.

Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film, 'Don Quixote', the Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards

Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film, Don Quixote, the Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards. Courtesy National Library of Australia

I had always understood that it was very hot in those Essendon hangars where the Don Quixote production was filmed. From this image it appears that perhaps it was quite cold at times!

  • Harry Haythorne choreographic awards

The Royal New Zealand Ballet and the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand have announced two new choreographic awards to honour Harry Haythorne, artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet from 1981 to 1992. There will be two studio showings of new works choreographed by company dancers who will be in the running for two awards, one to be decided by a panel headed by present artistic director Francesco Ventriglia, and the other a People’s Choice award funded by money raised at the memorial event for Haythorne held in January. Dates for the showings are 12 and 13 September in the Royal New Zealand ballet studios, Wellington.

  • Press for August

‘Moving tribute to those who served.’ Review of Reckless Valour, QL2 Dance, The Canberra Times, 1 August 2015, p. 16. Online version.

‘Dalman and Jones going into dance Hall of Fame.’ Feature on the 2015 Australian Dance awards, The Canberra Times, 27 August 2015, ‘Times 2’, p. 6. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2015

Dance and the ageing body. Sue Healey

15 August 2015, ARC Cinema, Canberra

Recently I posted a review of Sue Healey’s outstanding new work, On View: Live Portraits. On the day I went to see the show, however, a second component of the work, two short films featuring ‘icons’ of Australian dance, Lucette Aldous and Shirley McKechnie, was not being shown. So I was pleased that I was able to catch these two short films in Canberra as part of a session called ‘Dance and the ageing body’ during National Science Week.

Of the two films, one was thrilling, the other interesting, although both showed Healey’s remarkable expertise as a dance film maker. The one that truly shone for its dance component, and for its relevance to the subject of the ageing body and its capacity to continue to move, was that featuring Lucette Aldous, former star of the Australian Ballet and before that of Ballet Rambert and other English companies. Aldous is now 78 and yet she continues to dance daily. The film shows her giving herself a floor barre, which has long been a hallmark of her teaching and her own practice. Then we see her performing a temps lié-style exercise and then dancing outdoors, first on a grassy area in front of a contemporary Australian homestead, and then beside a flowing stretch of water. She is still an absolutely stunning mover. Some parts of the film are shot in slow motion so we can see very clearly the shape of every movement and the space each movement occupies and fills. Breathtaking.

Lucette Aldous in a sitll from Sue Healey's short film 'Lucette Aldous'.

Lucette Aldous in a still from Sue Healey’s short film ‘Lucette Aldous’

Some of the most exciting parts are when Healey uses excerpts  from the Australian Ballet film of Don Quixote in which Aldous famously danced Kitri to Rudolf Nureyev’s Basilio (and I might add gave Nureyev a run for his money). Using a layering technique Healey has Aldous behind a scrim watching and commenting on her performance as Kitri. And in another sequence Aldous dances with a billowing red scarf as we become aware, within the Don Quixote film, of an exchange between Aldous and Nureyev, which features a shawl. It made me hunt out my Don Q DVD and enjoy it again.

 Shirley McKechnie in a still from Sue Healey's short film 'Shirley McKechnie'

Shirley McKechnie in a still from Sue Healey’s short film ‘Shirley McKechnie’

The second section focuses on Shirley McKechnie, now 88 and much less mobile than Aldous. McKechnie has influenced many people working in the area of contemporary dance in Australia and, when a stroke left her unable to continue her own practice, she turned to writing, largely in the field of cognition. As a result, this short film is not so much about how to continue to drive the body physically as one ages, but about how to reinvent oneself in order to remain active within the field of dance.

Healey uses photographs to show the ageing process beginning with childhood shots of McKechnie and moving through the decades until we encounter McKechnie as an older woman. Once the film moves to McKechnie as a live subject, she remains seated leafing through a book. Pages of writing flutter through the air and land at her fingertips as the titles and dates of her academic articles are thrown onto the screen. The fluttering pages are pretty much the only movement throughout the film and so it suffers somewhat from being shown alongside ‘Lucette Aldous’ where movement is such a vital and astonishing component.

Although I did not see the films as part of the On View installation, it is easy to imagine how they might fit as part of the whole show, and the triple screen images link nicely with a similar arrangement in the live show. But Healey has a number of ideas on how these films might develop. They deserve to be developed further, perhaps with other ‘icons’ in addition to Aldous and McKechnie. But the issue of how to juxtapose veteran performers so that one doesn’t steal the limelight (deservedly in the case of Aldous) will remain an issue.

Michelle Potter, 17 August 2015

Don Quixote. The Australian Ballet

13 April 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

My single viewing of the Australian Ballet’s current production of Don Quixote was entertaining, if not theatrically thrilling.

I enjoyed seeing Reiko Hombo and Yosvani Ramos in the leading roles of Kitri and Basilio. The male jota-style variation in Act I suited Ramos beautifully and showed off his neat footwork and the lightness of his jump. His portrayal of Basilio worked really well in Act III when his ‘death’ scene captured a certain craziness and was quite hilarious. But I missed a sense of passion in his encounters with Kitri.

Hombo performed nicely and her technical execution was precise and clear. But again I missed the fiery quality I associate with Kitri and I felt the consequent lack of a strong emotional connection or a sense of physical repartee with Basilio.

What I really liked about the production was the characterisation of the Don, played by Steven Heathcote; Sancho Panza, the Don’s squire played by Frank Leo; and the wealthy Gamache, played by Matthew Donnelly. At last here was an approach that didn’t seem to think that over-the-top behaviour was necessary in these kinds of roles. All were still strong individuals demanding of our attention and thoughts but without the ridiculous pantomime elements that for me went out of fashion years ago.

Amongst the corps and soloists I admired Brett Chynoweth as one of the leading townsfolk, Dana Stephensen as one of Kitri’s friends and Eloise Fryer as Amour. Both Stephensen and Fryer looked wonderful onstage. They were technically assured and dancing as if they loved it. No Don could have resisted Fryer’s arrows! Chynoweth was full on into the action at every moment.

It’s a hard act, still, to follow in the footsteps of Rudolf Nureyev and Lucette Aldous and the cast that made up the first Australian Ballet production way back in the 1970s. But some have followed on brilliantly since then, and maybe some casts that I didn’t see in this season did in fact inject some of the fiery and passionate give and take that makes this ballet a bit more than just interesting entertainment. The subscriber I sat next to yesterday was singing the praises of Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello.

And for those who weren’t even born in the 1970s that first Don Q is still available on DVD as a digitally remastered version of the original film.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, 'Don Quixote'. Photo: Georges Antoni

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in a publicity shot for Don Quixote, 2012. Photo: Georges Antoni. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2013