One of the unfortunate consequences of the Federal Government’s so-called ‘efficiency dividends’, which have been forced on our cultural institutions over more years than I care to count, has been the demise of the National Library of Australia’s quarterly print publication, The National Library of Australia Magazine. The current issue, June 2016, is the last that will be printed. The magazine began in 1990 as a monthly publication with the title National Library of Australia News. Its intention,as explained by current Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, was ‘to raise awareness of the diversity and strength of the Library’s collections’. One of the Library’s great strengths has been its exceptional collection of dance materials and, while I am more than sad that the publication is closing up shop, I am also pleased and honoured to have an article in the final issue. It is the 35th dance-related article I have written for the magazine.
My article for this final issue is called simply ‘Tutu’ and on the front cover it is mentioned with the words ‘Triumph of the Tutu’. Those who are aware of my dance writing may know that I have published on this topic before, always with a different slant to suit different publications. This time the article uses some wonderful illustrations drawn from the Library’s Pictures Collections and draws on the words of designer Hugh Colman from an oral history interview recorded for the Library in 2012. The full article with the inclusion of the front and back cover is at this link. And what a great cover it is too!
The full list of my articles for the National Library’s magazine is at this link.
It is devastating news that Ausdance National will no longer receive operational funding from the Australia Council to continue its very significant activities in dance advocacy and support, activities that it has pursued with such commitment for close to forty years. A link to the press release from Neil Roach, acting CEO of Ausdance National, is here.
In the press release, Ausdance National President, Brian Lucas, rightly notes that it would be virtually impossible to find anyone—’dancer, choreographer, dance teacher, dance student, dance academic, or dance audience member’ (and I could add other categories)—whose work or life, or both, have not been impacted by the activities of Ausdance National. Among the many projects I could mention, I was closely involved with two that I consider advanced our understanding of the role of dance in our society and that provided (and continue to provide) significant resource material for researchers in Australia and across the world.
An Australian dance collection
Ausdance National was a partner in a project called Keep Dancing! It was a collaboration, funded by the Australia Council, between Ausdance, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and the National Library of Australia (NLA). I was the project manager for Keep Dancing! and I was located at the NFSA between 1997 and 2001, and then at the NLA in 2002. In 2003 the Library took financial responsibility for the project and created the position of Curator of Dance, the first such position in Australia I believe. I held that position until 2006 when I went to New York to lead the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library.
The focus of Keep Dancing! was to acquire dance films and videos for the NFSA collection, to ensure that they were preserved and transferred from old formats to current broadcast quality ones, and to have them catalogued and made accessible. As a collecting partner, the NLA commissioned many oral history interviews, in particular with those who were represented in some way in the moving image material acquired by the NFSA, or unearthed from the NFSA’s existing collections. In addition, paper-based collections were acquired by the NLA, again especially as they related to the other material arriving as part of Keep Dancing! The NLA also assisted with the creation of a database linking material across the institutions.
When the NLA took over the lead role, the database that had developed in the early stages became the dance portal, Australia Dancing. It was meant to be a virtual collection linking dance items from the NFSA and the NLA. It also had provision to have audio and moving image embedded into the entries, although this was never exploited to any extent. In many respects Australia Dancing was way ahead of its time, and it never reached its potential. Ausdance National remained involved with the project and was a member of the NLA project management committee, which met regularly, at least in the early years, to keep the project moving along its established guidelines
Sadly, there is no longer a dance curator at the NLA, and sadly too Australia Dancing is no longer available in the format that it was meant to have. An archived version is available on PANDORA and some material is available on Trove, although the entries are no longer being updated, nothing new is being added, and errors are not being corrected. But this incredible project, which began as a result of an Ausdance initiative to save dance on film, has resulted in the existence of a major national dance collection at the NLA, albeit scattered across formats with no overarching portal to draw it together and identify the material as a discrete Australian dance collection. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of the NLA’s dance material is available online as the result of the Library’s strong commitment to digitisation.
I know that this material is used, even though I am no longer employed by the Library on an ongoing basis. I am surprised at how often I am contacted by researchers, in Australia and from overseas, who have questions about the dance material housed in Canberra. As an example, just in the past week I had a long conversation with a researcher looking into Viennese émigrés in Australia and the notion of modernity. She was, of course, interested in Gertrud Bodenwieser and was spending some time in Canberra examining the Bodewnieser collection. Almost without exception, the extensive Bodenwieser material in both the NLA and the NFSA, which includes oral histories, paper-based items, film and video, ephemera and so forth, came to both institutions as a Keep Dancing! acquisition.
Brolga: an Australian journal about dance
In 1996 I began discussing with Meg Denton in Adelaide the need for an Australian dance journal that could publish writing of various kinds that otherwise would have no Australian outlet. Denton generously donated some start-up money and Brolga began to fly, with the first issue being published in December 1996. I was its editor until 2006 and over that time two issues each year were published, 24 issues in all. Under other editors Brolga was a print publication until 2011 when it became an online journal. The subject areas addressed over the years have been wide-ranging and its focus has changed under various editors, but it has remained a significant publication for the dissemination of Australian dance research.
Ausdance National was the auspicing agent for Brolga. It handled the start-up donation from Meg Denton, published the journal, maintained the list of subscribers and handled monies, did the mail outs and generally dealt with all day-to-day business associated with it. More recently Ausdance National has skilfully handled the design of the journal as well.
Keep Dancing!, with the subsequent growth of an Australian dance collection at our national cultural institutions, and the establishment and the ongoing publication of Brolga are just two of Ausdance National’s achievements that fall a little outside what the practising dance community might think of as the role of Ausdance National. But both have attracted international attention. Both were extraordinary initiatives and I wonder whether there is any realisation of the diversity of the contribution Ausdance National has made to the arts in Australia? I wonder, too, if there is any understanding that so much of what has been achieved will have a lasting impact?
Where to now? Neil Roach says in the email that accompanied the distribution of the media release that Ausdance ‘is not going to go away’ but that time is needed to rethink the organisation’s future. Choreographer James Batchelor, seen in the featured image, set sail to the Antarctic with a research team early in 2016. His aim was to find new ways of working in his chosen profession and the image suggests it would not have been without its difficulties. We await the outcome of his adventure as we also await a new pathway for Ausdance National.
Michelle Potter, 14 May 2016
Featured image: James Batchelor on the RV Investigator, 2016. Photo courtesy of the University of Tasmania.
The Canberra Critics’ Circle annual awards ceremony took place on 23 November and, in a special moment for dance in the Canberra region, Elizabeth Dalman was named ACT Artist of the Year. A well deserved award in a year when Dalman, currently teaching in Taiwan, worked extraordinarily hard to bring attention to the diverse history of Australian Dance Theatre, which celebrated fifty years of creativity in 2015.
Among the Circle’s general awards, which go to innovative activities in the performing and visual arts, and literature, two dance awards were given for 2015. Dalman received an award for her works Fortuity and L, both of which highlighted the range of her choreography dating from her time as director of Australian Dance Theatre to her recent work for her Mirramu Dance Company. Ruth Osborne, director of QL2 Dance, received an award for her work Walking and Falling, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and made in conjunction with its World War I exhibition All that Fall.
Eight emerging (and not so emerging) choreographers have been selected as finalists in the 2016 Keir Choreographic Award. Two have strong Canberra connections: James Batchelor and Chloe Chignell. Canberra audiences will remember their joint show earlier this year, when Batchelor showed Metasystems and Chignell Post Phase. The two have worked together frequently over the past few years with Chignell often appearing in works choreographed by Batchelor.
The other finalists are Sarah Aiken, also a finalist in the first Keir Award in 2014, along with Ghenoa Gela, Martin Hansen, Alice Heyward, Rebecca Jensen and Paea Leach. The eight finalists will each show a work, commissioned by the Keir Foundation, in Melbourne at Dancehouse in April 2016. Four works will then be selected by a jury and shown in Sydney at Carriageworks in May 2016, where the winner will be chosen.
Shona Dunlop MacTavish, former dancer with the Bodenwieser Ballet, recently visited Sydney from her home in New Zealand and, to celebrate the occasion, some of her Bodenwieser colleagues gathered in Sydney for a special get together. The image below shows Eileen Kramer (left) now 101 and Shona Dunlop MacTavish now 96. In the background they can be seen in a photograph in which they are dancing in Gertrud Bodenwieser’s Blue Danube, one of their best known roles.
Shona Dunlop MacTavish (right) and Eileen Kramer, Sydney 2015. Photo: Barbara Cuckson
Oral history interviews with Shona Dunlop MacTavish and Eileen Kramer are available online. Follow the links to the National Library of Australia’s online oral history site: Shona Dunlop MacTavish; Eileen Kramer.
Ian Templeman (1938–2015); Glenys McIver (1949–2015)
I was saddened to hear of the deaths in November of two former colleagues from the National Library of Australia, Ian Templeman and Glenys McIver. While perhaps not widely known in the dance community, both made a significant contribution to the growth of my career as a dance writer, historian and curator. Glenys appointed me as the Esso Research Fellow in the Performing Arts at the National Library in 1988. Among my many activities in that position, I began recording oral history interviews for the Library, which I continue to do now some 25 years later.
Ian was appointed Assistant Director General Public Programs at the National Library in 1990 and proceeded to expand the Library’s publishing program. This involved establishing the monthly magazine National Library of Australia News (now renamed The National Library of Australia Magazine and published quarterly), and the quarterly journal Voices (now no longer active). He encouraged my dance writing for both publications and was responsible for commissioning my book A Passion for Dance (now out of print), which consisted of a series of edited oral history interviews with some of Australia’s foremost choreographers.
Both Glenys and Ian made significant other contributions to my career. I will always be grateful for their mentorship.
Dance rattles (tied around the ankles during performance) from Bondé, New Caledonia
In its Treasures Gallery, the National Library of Australia currently has one display case devoted to a production by the Borovanksy Ballet, Les Amants eternels (The Eternal Lovers). When I looked a few days ago the display contained the notated score (Laban) for the ballet, the work of Meg Abbie Denton; a Borovansky Ballet program giving details of performers and creative personnel; a double page spread from The Australian Women’s Weekly published in the issue of 12 March 1952; and on the wall above the display case a costume design by William Constable for the character of Romeo in the ballet, and a drawing in pastel and charcoal on velvet paper by Enid Dickson of Paul Grinwis as Romeo. The Constable design is to be removed shortly (for preservation reasons) and will be replaced by photographs. The rest of the material will remain for a few more months.
The Eternal Lovers was created by Grinwis, a dancer with the Borovansky Ballet in the 1950s. It received its world premiere in Melbourne in December 1951 and remained in the Borovansky Ballet repertoire until 1960. As Alan Brissenden has recorded in his and Keith Glennon’s Australia Dances:
Paul Grinwis conceived this ballet as a continuation of the story of two lovers, called for the sake of convenience Romeo and Juliet, when they awake in after-life. Its focal point is a struggle between the spirits of Love and Death, Love being finally victorious.*
At the premiere, Grinwis danced the role of Romeo, Kathleen Gorham that of Juliet, with Bruce Morrow taking the part of the Spirit of Death and Helene Ffrance the Spirit of Love. The ballet was danced to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.
Sadly, the National Library no longer has a dance curator. It has an extensive and wide-ranging dance collection, built up as a result, firstly, of the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project (1988–1991); then Keep Dancing! a collaborative venture with the Australia Council, Ausdance and the National Film and Sound Archive (1997–2001); and between 2002 and early 2013 as a result of having an in-house dance curator. So it is good to see that at least a small gesture is being made to give a very tiny part of the material some visibility. The current display reveals, again in a very small way, the kinds of areas in which the dance material is held—art works, ephemera, notated scores, popular magazines are present, and photographic material is coming. The captions refer to interviews, although there is no sound capture from the interviews.
The dance collection at the National Library is incredibly rich, crosses eras and dance styles, and is supported by extensive material from other art forms and by organisational records, all held by the Library across its many formats. I can but hope that more material will be displayed, and even that eventually someone will take the trouble to add to out-dated records—at the very least a few dates of death need to be added to Trove records.
As an aside, in 2005 I had the pleasure of visiting Grinwis and his beauitful, ever-vibrant wife, Christiane Hubert, also a dancer with the Borovansky Ballet for a few years from 1954. I had hoped to record an oral history interview with Grinwis, but at the time he was not amenable to the idea. Another occasion never arose and Grinwis died about a year later in 2006. Hubert, I believe, moved back to Paris but I am not sure if she is still alive.
Michelle Potter, 10 January 2015
* Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon, Australia Dances. Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2010), p. 20
Admirers of Hannah O’Neill, and there are many if my web statistics are anything to go by, may be interested to read the following post on Laura Capelle’s website Bella Figura. In addition to what is written on the site, there is a link to an article written by Capelle for the American dance magazine Pointe. The article was published in the February/March issue of Pointe and Capelle has done a great job in getting O’Neill to open up about her experiences, including some of the difficulties she has faced in Paris.
UPDATE August 2020: The Bella figura website seems not to be available these days and I have removed the non-operational link. I did find, however, a Laura Capelle article about Hannah O’Neill at this link.
A news story on the Bodenwieser project being led by Jochen Roller, which I mentioned in last month’s dance diary, was screened on SBS TV a few days ago. The SBS story is available below.
Below I have reproduced a photo of Marie Cuckson, who with Emmy Taussig assembled the Bodenwieser archival material and kept it in good order until she donated it to the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive in 1998. The acquisition was part of the Keep Dancing! project, which was the forerunner to Australia Dancing. Marie Cuckson is seen in her home in Sydney in August 1998 with the material packaged and ready to be transported to Canberra.
Oral history collections
As a result of the Athol Willoughby interview conducted recently I retrieved the listing of dance-related oral histories in the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive that used to be part of Australia Dancing. I have updated that list (an old version is on the PANDORA Archive). Here is the link to the updated version. It is a remarkable list of resources going back to the 1960s with early recordings by pioneer oral historian Hazel de Berg and, in the case of the NFSA, to the 1950s with some radio interviews from that period. It includes, for example, interviews with every artistic director of the Australian Ballet—Peggy van Praagh, Robert Helpmann, Anne Woolliams, Marilyn Jones, Maina Gielgud, Ross Stretton and David McAllister—and with three of the company’s administrators/general managers—Geoffrey Ingram, Noël Pelly and Ian McRae. But it is not limited by any means to ballet and in fact covers most genres of dance and the ancillary arts as well.
That material held by the National Film and Sound Archive is included reflects the origins of the list, which was begun in the early days of the Australia Dancing project when the NFSA was a partner in the project (and in fact the major collecting partner in its initial stages). I have also posted the list on the Resources page of this website and will update it periodically as information about new interviews comes to light. It deserves to be more obvious than it is now—that is hidden in PANDORA in an outdated version—especially as it is not a static resource.
February saw a huge jump in visits from France due largely to the post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle, which was the most accessed post during February by a runaway margin. Critics in France were curious about the reaction of Australian audiences and critics. As a result I have added ‘Danses avec la plume’ (the title refers a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche) from journalist Amélie Bertrand to my list of Resources under ‘Other sites’.
Coming in at fourth spot was a much older post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Jiri Kylian’s Kaguyahime, which was having a return season in Paris in February. Interest in these two posts saw Paris become the fourth most active city after Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
The second most accessed post in February was an even older one, my review of Meryl Tankard’s Oracle, originally posted in 2009. Tankard is currently touring this work in the United States. At third spot was a post on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring perhaps reflecting the wide interest in 2013 in the many dance activities associated with the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the Stravinsky/Roerich/Nijinsky Rite of Spring, of which the Tankard tour is one.
I was interested, but also filled with despair, to see that the National Library has updated another of its important online dance resources—the finding aid to the Ballets Russes programs for the three Australian tours by Colonel de Basil’s companies. I was interested because the original finding aid needed an update. Since the text was prepared some 10 years or so ago by Australian Collections’ librarian Richard Stone, new information has been unearthed, especially in relation to the dancers who toured with the company. This new material clearly needed to be added. I was also filled with despair, however, because it seems that once again an update to an existing dance resource now offers less than what was offered in the original version.
The original finding aid contained Stone’s text and digitised images of the entire National Library collection of programs and cast sheets for all three tours, along with some interesting advertising flyers for the tours. This digitisation project was carried out in 2005 with funding from the Australian Research Council as part of the Ballets Russes project. Some gaps existed where the Library did not hold programs or cast sheets, but the gaps were small as the Library’s holdings of de Basil company programs are extensive. Now in this update just a tiny portion of that material is being made accessible to the public as an online resource. I am at a loss to know why and wonder whether the Library intends to go back and attach the rest of the digitised material to the new finding aid? The full digitised material was an amazing resource making it possible to discover with ease who danced what and when, anywhere and at any time.
The updated finding aid also includes additional material that may cause confusion. An attempt is made to document the performances after the Original Ballet Russe left Australia in 1940 using a small collection of material from the Papers of Valrene Tweedie, also part of the National Library’s dance resources. While it is only to be expected that this documentation is, at this stage, far from complete, the problem is that many of Tweedie’s programs are not for performances by the Original Ballet Russe. The later part of the tour listings in the finding aid are for the company led by Sergei Denham, usually known as the One and Only Ballet Russe, which Tweedie joined in 1946, and for Cuban companies with which Tweedie was involved. The listing from 1940 onwards is really a reflection of the career of Valrene Tweedie rather than of the history of the Original Ballet Russe. This is not made clear in the updated finding aid. And incidentally, Valrene Tweedie was not the only Australian-born dancer to appear with the Original Ballet Russe in the United States and Cuba, as the text states. Melbourne-born Lydia Kuprina (Couprina) (Phillida Cooper) danced with the Original Ballet Russe in Australia in 1940 and also in the United States and Cuba at least until 1942.
It is unfortunate that the National Library’s dance material continues to be updated in a way that compromises that material. Let’s hope that at least the entire collection of digitised programs will eventually find its way into the updated finding aid.
This is an expanded version of an article first published in ‘Panorama’, The Canberra Times, 7 July 2012, p. 15 under the title ‘an icon of dance’, and in The Saturday Age, 7 July 2012, p. 24 with the title ‘In matters theatrical, Helpmann’s ideas soared above Patrick White’s bizarre flights of fancy’.
As part of its forthcoming Icons program, the Australia Ballet will restage Robert Helpmann’s 1964 work, The Display. I am curious to know how this work will stand up choreographically and theatrically now that close to 50 years have passed since it was conceived. The old black and white ABC studio recording shows a work that could still be gripping today with the right cast and informed coaching.
But I am also fascinated by the stories that surround the creation of The Display. Helpmann claimed, so the Australian Ballet’s current promotional material says, that The Display was inspired by a dream he had in which he saw his friend and theatrical colleague, Katharine Hepburn, naked on a dais surrounded by lyrebirds.
Helpmann and Hepburn came to Australia together in 1955 as the leading actors with a Shakespearean company sent out from London by the Old Vic. Hepburn, who toured in Australia for a period of about six months, was fascinated by the habits of the lyrebird, which she saw on a trip to Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges, and she insisted that Helpmann come with her to watch the lyrebird in its mating dance. Helpmann later included a note in a program for The Display in which he maintained that the movements he eventually choreographed for the character of the lyrebird in his ballet were those ‘learned after many hours of watching this beautiful creature’. So the background was certainly there for Helpmann to dream the dream he is alleged to have had.
The storyline of The Display concerns a group of young Australians on a picnic in the bush. The men practise football moves and Helpmann drew on the services of Ron Barassi* of Melbourne and then Carlton Football Clubs to coach the dancers for this section of the ballet. In old-fashioned Australian style, the girls rarely interact with the men but sit together, chat and prepare the picnic. We first see the lyrebird, who is named the Male in the list of characters, dancing behind a gauze at the beginning of the ballet. Three main human characters emerge—the Leader of the young men in the group, the Outsider and the Girl. The Girl and the Outsider are attracted to each other but the men have been drinking and inevitably there is a fight over the Girl.
The girls in the group flee the scene and ultimately the Outsider is left lying on the ground following the aggressive actions of the Leader and his mates. The Girl returns to the scene of the picnic, as does the Outsider, and eventually the Girl is left lying exhausted on the ground following an attempted rape by the Outsider. The Male reappears and, with his tail feathers fully displayed, enfolds the girl into his plumage.
The Display explores themes of hostility and aggression in Australian society and Helpmann recorded that he had attempted to show the brutality that can emerge from gang behaviour. Some of Helpmann’s colleagues have also suggested that elements of the story are autobiographical. William (Bill) Akers, who created the dappled lighting for the ballet, recalled in an oral history interview in 2002 that as a youth Helpmann was thrown into the sea at Bondi by a gang who thought his clothing was ‘sissy’. He was, according to Akers, wearing plus fours at the time. Akers suggested that The Display reflected Helpmann’s feeling that he had always been an outsider in society
The ballet is strongly symbolic and the work’s sexual elements, both overt and suggested, occasionally incurred the wrath of some sections of society. Newspaper clippings in Helpmann’s scrapbooks indicate that, when The Display was shown in Glasgow as part of the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival, the Glasgow Presbytery made attempts to have the ballet banned, a move that was only narrowly defeated.
But the story behind The Display has more to it than what Helpmann and others have recorded to date. In fact, Patrick White was approached to write a scenario for the ballet and a cache of letters, which I chanced upon around ten years ago in a National Library collection, indicated that when White submitted the manuscript it was not to Helpmann’s liking, and not to the liking of the then artistic director, Peggy van Praagh, either. They rejected the manuscript. But what was contained in White’s submission remained an annoying mystery until just recently when, while looking for something else, I chanced upon a manuscript in the National Library entitled ‘A scenario for a ballet by Patrick White’.
What this manuscript reveals is that Helpmann and van Praagh had excellent theatrical reasons for rejecting White’s scenario. White’s story takes place in two separate settings, the Australian bush where initially a picnic takes place, and a ballroom in the country mansion of a family called Brewer. The Brewer daughter, named as the Girl in White’s cast list, is engaged to an Italian Count. The girl has an obsession with a Lyrebird and during the picnic leads the Count into the bush where they encounter the bird. At the end of the ball that takes place in the mansion, the Girl returns to the bush. During this scene it is revealed that she is naked (stage naked) under her black raincoat. She encounters the Lyrebird and with him dances what White calls ‘a dance of consummation’. The Italian Count follows, is enraged at what he sees, rapes the Girl and then strangles her. He is then arrested by a detachment of policemen.
Helpmann may well have given White an initial plot outline as the first excursion into the bush is redolent of Hepburn taking Helpmann with her to visit the sanctuary of the lyrebird, while the nakedness of the Girl when she returns to the forest even recalls Helpmann’s alleged dream. The Italian Count too may well be Helpmann’s Outsider, although he is an outsider on account of his nationality and only partly so by his behaviour as described in the White manuscript.
But despite the fact that Helpmann apparently disliked what White presented, he appears to have borrowed many features of White’s story, including perhaps the gauzes that became part of Helpmann’s production and that lift to reveal the sanctuary of the lyrebird. White’s manuscript contains all kinds of stage directions including directions regarding gauzes.
However, Helpmann, as the remarkable man of the theatre he was, clearly removed the more bizarre and the more literary features from the manuscript he received. ‘When the ballet opens’, writes White, ‘a grotesque fête-galante version of an Australian picnic is about to take place’. He continues, ‘As the dancers appear they have the air of embarking on something reprehensibly unusual. They are inclined to mock at their surroundings and to treat the whole occasion as a huge joke. LADIES are over-dressed in satirical versions of contemporary clothes … The OLDER PERSONNAGES are pompous and would-be refined, the YOUNGER PEOPLE rather gauche, if not hobbledehoy’. In The Display that went onstage in 1964 there are no Italian counts, no feeling of hobbledehoy, no pomposity, no murders, no policemen for example. Helpmann distilled the scenario and in so doing created a story that could be told simply and clearly through dance. White’s elaborate and somewhat convoluted story with its many literary descriptions of events and people was not an easy scenario to translate successfully into dance. Even White’s three suggestions for a title, ‘The stroke of feathers’, ‘The feather breast’, or ‘The double engagement’, have nowhere near the instant attraction of Helpmann’s eventual choice, The Display, an ornithological term referring, in the case of The Display, to the lyrebird’s mating dance.
The Display was not the first all-Australian ballet as Helpmann claimed when speaking to oral historian Hazel de Berg in 1964, but it did have an Australian creative team of the first order. Complementing Helpmann’s choreography were designs by Sidney Nolan and music by Malcolm Williamson. The lighting design by Akers included a number of new initiatives in theatre lighting. The work was visually and aurally evocative and an exceptional collaborative effort. Its strength also partly lay in Helpmann’s ability to create theatre by reducing a story to its essentials.
The ballet was dedicated to Katharine Hepburn but Patrick White’s involvement was, to my knowledge, not mentioned in 1964‒1965 programs and appears not to have been mentioned in published biographies of Helpmann.
* Barassi is recorded as saying: In 1964 I had the great pleasure of coming to know Robert Helpmann through my involvement on his ballet ‘The Display’. In the dance there was quite a lot of football played and Robert asked me to attend rehearsals and advise the ballet dancers on the correct ways of playing Victorian Rules. I did so and although the dancers were impressively athletic, I immediately noticed that they were throwing the football around the room like rugby players. I told Robert this and he was absolutely mortified. From there he worked solidly to get every detail right, as his demand for excellence and accuracy was uncompromising.
It is with deep regret that I note that Australia Dancing, the National Library’s dance portal, has ceased to be an active website. ‘Australia dancing leaps into Trove’ we are told when we open the site’s URL www.australiadancing.org. (Update August 2020: This page cannot be found says the link)
Well Trove has its place as a search engine, or discovery service as it is called, and its newspaper service is absolutely brilliant. But it is not the ‘exciting and rapidly expanding service for dance researchers’ it claims to be in the redirection notice. If I look up Giselle for example I get a variety of unwanted items—a photo of someone whose name is Giselle and who recently got married in Canberra; a book called Sweet Giselle available from Amazon for which the description begins:
Giselle thinks she has the perfect life. Her fine and sexy husband, Giovanni, is obsessed with his perfect wife and gives her whatever her heart desires. Giselle thinks her husband can do no wrong. What she doesn’t know is that Giovanni’s seedy dealings put her in danger;
A whole bunch of Giselles under ‘People and Organisations’ who have nothing whatsoever to do with dance; and so on. At least under ‘Maps’ it says ‘No results’, which is better than what comes up for Australian Dance Theatre, which has four results under ‘Maps’ the first of which refers to editions of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.
Times change and money is short but it is regrettable that the Australian dance community has lost what Alan Brissenden referred to in his book Australia Dances as ‘that essential resource’, especially given that Australia Dancing was established using specifically focussed public money. But then the site has been badly neglected recently. It has needed a redesign for some years. Many of the entries are now out of date and some contain incorrect information. I am not sure whether the material will ever be updated or corrected now that the site has taken a flying leap.
Vale Australia Dancing because moving it to Trove has destroyed its integrity as a dance resource.
Michel Fokine choreographed and rehearsed his ballet Paganini in Australasia during the 1938-1939 tour by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet. He did not succumb to the suggestion, however, that the ballet be performed in practice clothes so that its world premiere could occur in Australia. He set this decision out in a letter to his friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, to whose music Paganini is set. The letter is reproduced, in part and undated, in Memoirs of a Ballet Master:
‘The ballet was completely choreographed and very well performed in Australia. There was such a demonstration of interest that the management evolved the mad idea of presenting the ballet without costumes and scenery!
Knowing that very often the scenery, and especially the costumes, hamper the dancers, that much that goes well at rehearsals, in practice costumes, gets lost when presented on the stage, I would have welcomed the idea. But in this particular ballet, many dances, if given without the necessary masks and props, without the lighting effects, without the platform, and so on, could not possibly be understood. Therefore I declined this suggestion …’
Paganini was eventually given its Australian premiere in Sydney on 30 December 1939 on the opening night of the third Ballets Russes tour, that by the Original Ballet Russe. This was just six months after the work’s world premiere in London on 30 June 1939. Australian performances of Paganini were foreshadowed by Arnold Haskell writing in 1939 in the Sydney Ure Smith publication Australia. National Journal. Haskell noted that the company was ‘at home’, that is in London, but awaiting a return to Australia. He updated Australian readers on additions to the company and on particular successes achieved during the London season. He reported that Paganini had been ‘the greatest popular success for many years’ but went on to comment that he, personally, was not impressed. He wrote:
‘Its craftsmanship is certain, in one dance set for Riabouchinska, it is vintage Fokine, but the rest seems to have come out of the stockpot of romantic paraphernalia, banished by Fokine himself in “Les Sylphides”. There is the same theme as in Symphonie Fantastique, the battle between good and evil, but it compares to that Ballet as a print from a Victorian Keepsake does to a painting by Jerome Bosch. Soudeikine’s decor greatly detracts. It is at times of a chocolate box sweetness, and the costumes are still worse. Tactful lighting greatly helped here. It is, at any rate, a pleasant spectacle, but somehow I expect more from the Russians.’
Paganini was, nevertheless, also an enormously popular ballet in Australia. It was given 55 performances during seasons in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. In terms of numbers of performances it was outperformed only by Aurora‘s Wedding (56 performances), Swan Lake Act II (58 performances), and Graduation Ball and Les Sylphides (69 performances each). The initial critical response in Australia was, however, a little lukewarm. The anonymous critic for The Sydney Morning Herald also noted the similarities with Massine’s Symphonie fantastique, and commented that the Massine work was ‘the greater masterpiece by reason of its more elemental, almost seismic release of emotion’. The critic also commented on the orchestral playing noting in particular the impact of the short rehearsal time that had been available to the musicians. But while he (or she) noted that Paganini ‘as a spectacle … provides half an hour of daring, thunderous beauty’ he was unhappy with ‘the obviousness, and at times extravagance, of the symbolism that is employed’.
But perhaps the most interesting interpretation by an Australian came from Bernard Smith. Smith was 23 when he saw Paganini in 1940 and was at the beginning of a long and distinguished career as an art historian and teacher. His interest in the ballet may have been sparked by his interest at the time in surrealism and what he called ‘all the various modernisms’ that were being debated in Sydney art circles. And the Ballets Russes performances certainly offered those interested in these ‘various modernisms’ the opportunity to see first hand examples in the company’s sets and costumes. The repertoire of the Original Ballet Russe as presented in Australia included works with designs by Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, André Masson and Natalia Goncharova, all then at the forefront of one ‘ism’ or another.
Smith was also a friend of Sydney Ure Smith, whose patronage of the Ballets Russes through his various publications is well known, and Peter Bellew, the second husband of Ballets Russes dancer Hélène Kirsova. At the time he was also reading widely from a range of Marxist and other left wing texts and by his own admission was ‘a very active young member of the Communist Party’. Given his artistic and political leanings, then, the tenor of his discussion of Paganini in an unpublished, typescript entitled ‘ “Paganini”, notes after attending the Monte Carlo Diaghilev Ballet in Sydney 1940’ is perhaps predictable. It is, nevertheless, somewhat startling and certainly unique in its point of view. It reads in part:
‘The ballet “Paganini” is one of those works of art which are created to satisfy the “soul-hunger” of the creator or as in this case of the creators. It satisfies a double wish-fulfillment; the desire of the creators, Fokine and Rachmaninoff to hearken back to a Golden Age when there were no class differences and the completely contradictory desire to captivate the hearts (and money) of the bourgeoisie as Paganini did.
The second scene is a feudalist-bourgeois conception of the people, of lovers in an ideal pastoral world, where there are no class barriers … The “people” of the second scene are not the mass of the people at all, they are only the idealised conception of what the bourgeois would look like if they could forget that their own freedom depended upon the slavery of others’.
Smith’s use of the word ‘Diaghilev’ in the name of the company he saw is, of course, erroneous, but his unpublished critique of Paganini offers further evidence that the Ballets Russes visits to Australia inspired a wide range of people working across the arts, and also that they prompted a wide range of responses.