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

Dance diary. June 2019

  • Shona Dunlop MacTavish (1920-2019)

The death of Shona Dunlop MacTavish in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 18 June at the age of 99 sent me back to her autobiography, Leap of faith. It was published in 1997 and the early sections give a fascinating account of her schooldays in New Zealand and her time in Europe over four years beginning 1935. Those four years included her introduction to dance and in Leap of faith Dunlop MacTavish gives her thoughts on her early teachers, one of whom was Gertrud Bodenwieser. Of Bodenwieser and how her classes affected people, Dunlop MacTavish writes

Frau Gerty, as she was known by her students, was a small erect figure who, when not demonstrating, examined her class through an intimidating lorgnette … Although nervous at first, I began to relax and enjoy myself as it appeared she was taking little notice of me. Soon I was swept up with the rest of the class—a mass of whirling bodies with ecstatic faces.

The book continues through Dunlop MacTavish’s life in in South America on tour with Bodenwieser’s dancers; follows her experiences in Australia, China and Africa (the latter two with her missionary husband Donald MacTavish); and then moves on to the Philippines. The story then comes back to New Zealand and her home city of Dunedin where she set up a number of dance-related initiatives.

Dunlop MacTavish’s choreographic output was extensive and a list of her choreographies in Australia and New Zealand forms an appendix to Leap of faith. It is remarkable list. As one example, the first solo she created for herself was Two souls alas reside within my breast. Along with others of her early works, she danced it when her husband-to-be came to the Bodenwieser studio in Sydney to be introduced to her dancing. In her oral history interview for the National Library of Australia she explains the origin of the work:

I’d seen a young man in a nightclub with a very scarred face, beautiful on one side, all scarred on the other. It suddenly gave me the image of how many of us actually have two personalities. The title of the work was taken from some writing by Goethe. [Faust, First Part]

Shona Dunlop in a study for Two souls alas reside within my breast, c. 1945. Photo: Clifton Firth. From a card using material from the National Dance Archive of New Zealand

For more on the remarkable life of Shona Dunlop MacTavish, here is a link to an oral history interview I recorded with her for the National Library on 13 April 1998. It is available online both as audio and as a transcript. Leap of faith is also definitely worth a re-read.

  • Queen’s Birthday Honours list

Congratulations to Li Cunxin, Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac, who were all recognised in the 2019 Queen’s birthday honours list. Li and Tankard received an AO, Lansac an OAM.

In a recent conversation with Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser I also heard that Robert Cohan, founding artistic director of London Contemporary Dance School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre, had also been honoured in England. Cohan influenced the careers of many Australian dancers and choreographers. He was knighted!

With regard to the Australian awards, Lansac’s work is not often acknowledged as much and as appropriately as it should be, so it is especially pleasing to see that he has been recognised. Below are a few of many photographs taken by Lansac that are part of a collection held in the National Library of Australia. His career has crossed boundaries as these images show. Here, too, is a link to an article that appeared in the now-defunct National Library of Australia News, which gives a little insight into Lansac’s early Australian collaborations and commissions. See also the tag Régis Lansac on this website.

Below left: Pierre Thibaudeau of Entr’acte Theatre in a solo performance, Sydney 1985. Below right: Richard Talonga of One Extra Company in Kai Tai Chan’s Midnight Moon, Sydney 1984.

Above left: Portrait of dancer Mary Duchesne, 1987. Above right: Tim Coldwell, Circus Oz, 1982. All photos: © Régis Lansac

  • Dancing under the southern skies

A new book by Valerie Lawson has just been published. I have not yet had time to read the copy I have but, flicking through the pages, there are some great photographs in it that, as far as I am aware, have never been published before. Lawson also sets the scene for what is (or rather what is not) contained in the book when she writes: ‘Dancing under the southern skies is not a detailed description of professional ballet performances in Australia—the dates, the theatres, the casts, the designers—although the detail is important and, one day, might become a dictionary of ballet.’ The next paragraph in the introduction explains what is included. But I will leave that for your further reading!

Further information is on the publisher’s site.

  • Press for June 2019

‘Vale Jonathan Taylor’, Dance Australia, June/July 2019, p. 13. PDF at this link

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2019

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for my book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. Donations are tax deductible. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Featured image: Evelyn Ippen, Bettina Vernon, Emmy Towsey and Shona Dunlop, Bodenwieser Ballet, Sydney c. 1939. Photo: Max Dupain

Portrait of Jonathan Taylor. Photo © Grant Hancock

Jonathan Taylor (1941–2019)

I’ve never done anything else but dance … *

Jonathan Taylor, dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre from 1976 to 1985, has died in Melbourne at the age of 77.

Taylor was born in Manchester, England, where he began tap and ballet lessons as a very young boy. As a teenager he was taught in London by Andrew Hardie at the International School of Dancing. His professional career began when he danced in musicals and pantomime shows in London. At that stage he was asked to change his name for theatrical purposes from John (his birth name) to Jonathan—a union representative discovered there was another John Taylor, a juggler, on the circuit. 

In 1959 Taylor joined a company started by Leonide Massine with which Harry Haythorne was also involved, the Nervi International Ballet, before joining Amsterdam Ballet (later Dutch National Ballet), again with the involvement of Haythorne. In Amsterdam Taylor met his wife-to-be, Ariette van Rossen, also a dancer with Amsterdam Ballet, and shortly afterwards they moved to England. In England they joined Ballet Rambert, where Marie Rambert was fond of referring to Jonathan as ‘Jack’. Taylor toured extensively with the Rambert company, and also began his choreographic career with Diversities, made for Ballet Rambert in 1966, ‘Tis Goodly Sport in 1970, and Listen to the Music in 1972. He left Rambert in 1972 and took up a freelance career in 1973.

Taylor first came to Australia in 1975 to work with Ballet Victoria, then directed jointly by Garth Welch and Laurel Martyn. He was to stage his Listen to the Music, much admired by Peggy van Praagh, and create a new work. The new work turned out to be Star’s End and it was a huge hit in Melbourne. As a result, Taylor was invited back to Australia to be interviewed for the position of artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide. He was subsequently offered the position and arrived in Australia in 1976 with his wife and three children. He also brought with him Joe Scoglio and Julia Blaikie, close friends from his Rambert days, who joined him and Ariette Taylor to make up a foursome who would go on to make Australian Dance Theatre one of the most remarkable companies in the Australian contemporary dance world. Scoglio acted as assistant director, Blaikie as ballet mistress. Both also performed as dancers with the company.

Julia Blaikie and dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in Flibbertigibbet, 1978. Photo: © Jeff Busby.

Under Taylor the repertoire of Australian Dance Theatre included works from choreographers with whom Taylor had worked in England, in particular Christopher Bruce and Norman Morrice, as well as new works of his own. Some of his own works had Australian themes that drew on an English approach to Australian manners and attitudes—Incident a Bull Creek for example. Others, such as Wildstars, reflected his background in London with popular entertainment—many thought I’d sold my soul to the devil, he has remarked.** The company also had a strong emphasis on workshops and works for children, the latter led by Ariette Taylor who had begun working with children in London before the move to Australia. The company was initially jointly funded by the South Australian and Victorian governments. It toured widely in Australia and internationally.

Alan Israel (left) and John Nobbs in Christopher Bruce’s Black Angels. Australian Dance Theatre, c. 1980. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia.

Taylor left Australian Dance Theatre, unhappily, at the end of 1985. He and his family moved to Melbourne shortly afterwards. There he worked freelance, which included (at the invitation of Anne Woolliams) a brief period as choreographer in residence at the Victorian College of the Arts. He also worked in Holland with Netherlands Dance Theatre, as well as in a variety of other countries, and with several Australian companies including Kai Tai Chan’s One Extra Company and Maggie Sietsma’s Expressions Dance Company. In 1988 he was appointed Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts and in this capacity led both the tertiary and secondary schools until 1997. During those ten years he continued to choreograph, including in New Zealand where, in 1992, he created Hamlet for Harry Haythorne then directing the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

In the years following his work with the Victorian College of the Arts, Taylor again worked freelance, often in collaboration with Ariette Taylor with Handspan Theatre, where he was a board member from 1993 to 1998, and the Keene-Taylor Theatre Project.

In his recent oral history interview for the National Library of Australia, Taylor spoke of the one regret he had in life, which was that he had never been asked to choreograph for the Australian Ballet. But he also spoke emotionally of what he had especially enjoyed.

I enjoyed coming to Australia and having the ability to be in charge of my own company. It also allowed me not only to choreograph and be a creative person, and when I left the company in 1985 I don’t think they realised they were cutting off creativity as well as a job. I’m sure they didn’t, and that was a great blow. But it was wonderful to not set a standard, but set my standard—the standard of the dancing, the standard of the choreography, and the presentation of the performance.*** Listen to this quote

Jonathan Taylor is survived by his wife Ariette, their children, Ingmar, Juliet and Rebe, and their families.

John (Jonathan) Taylor: born Manchester, England 2 May 1941; died Melbourne Australia, 27 March 2019

Michelle Potter, 3 March 2019

Featured image: Portrait of Jonathan Taylor (detail), n.d. Photo:
© Grant Hancock

All images and oral history extracts used with permission

* Jonathan Taylor, Oral history interview recorded by Michelle Potter, September 2018, Oral History and Folklore Collection, National Library of Australia, TRC 6977
** Ibid.
*** Ibid

Dame Margaret Scott. Photo Angela Lynkushka

Dame Margaret Scott, 1922—2019

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Dame Margaret Scott on 24 February 2019. I was enormously privileged to have spent considerable time with her throughout 2014 as I wrote her biography for Text Publishing. Even before that, way back in 1993, I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with her for the National Library of Australia, which eventually formed a framework for the biography.

Vale Maggie. You were an exceptional woman and you changed the face of dance in Australia. The obituary I wrote has been published in Dance Australia at this link.

Dame Margaret Scott, AC, DBE, OBE.
Born Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 April 1922
Died Melbourne, Australia, 24 February 2019

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2019

Featured image: Dame Margaret Scott, 1994 (detail). Photo: © Angela Lynkushka. Used with the kind permission of the photographer

Dame Margaret Scott. Photo Angela Lynkushka
June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

June Kerr (1932–2018)

by Jennifer Shennan

Russell Kerr has been the treasured father of ballet in New Zealand since he returned here in 1957 after some years dancing in UK, where he had married fellow dancer, June Greenhalgh. His directorship of New Zealand Ballet in 1960s was a visionary and courageous one and his loyal contribution has continued in all the years since. June danced in the celebrated United Ballet seasons of 1959–1960, but then became the mother of two children. Her contribution to ballet in this country may not have been as publicly visible as her husband’s but it was just as real, and she was with him every step of the way.

June Kerr, nee Greenhalgh, was born in 1932, in Southend-on-Sea, England, the youngest of three children.  Her father had started his seafaring career on sailing ships and later became a merchant navy captain while her mother held the home fires during his extended periods of time away at sea.

As a child June attended the Cone-Ripman school where the curriculum combined general education with ballet and related theatre-arts training.  Originally based in London but relocated during WWII to Hertfordshire, it later became known as Arts Educational School.

Anton Dolin, having danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, became a pioneer of ballet in England (and toured New Zealand with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in late 1930s). Dolin visited the Cone-Ripman school after World War II and selected 12 young dancers, June Greenhalgh among them, to join a troupe he and Alicia Markova were forming. This later developed into a permanent London-based company, Festival Ballet, of which June was thus a foundation member. (Renamed English National Ballet in 1989, this is the company that performed a season of Giselle in Auckland earlier this year. The ballet world sits across national boundaries and through time, its best dancers becoming citizens of an international ‘country’).

In 1952 Anne Rowse, a young New Zealand dancer training in London, also joined Festival Ballet, and she and June became instant friends. Anne spoke movingly at the funeral of the  lifelong friendship that ensued.

June Greenhalgh in Ruth Page’s The Merry Widow/Vilia. Festival Ballet 1953

In 1953 another young New Zealander, Russell Kerr, joined Festival Ballet. He and June held hands, but he explained to her they’d better not get too serious because he would at some stage be returning to New Zealand, feeling a moral obligation to do that on account of the Government bursary he had been awarded. ‘Not a problem. I’d come too,’ replied June, and so they were married without delay.

Festival Ballet, under the Polish impresario Julian Braunsweg, toured and performed in UK, Europe, Canada and US with memorable programs, and the likes of Igor Stravinsky conducting in the pit. In 1957 the Kerrs left all that behind and came to settle in New Zealand. (Lucky I was, to be a child pupil at Nettleton-Edwards School of Ballet in Auckland where Russell became a partner. I continue to learn from him to this day).

Make no mistake—Russell would become the lion, and June the lioness, of ballet in this country when they moved to Wellington in 1962 and he became director of New Zealand Ballet. (Poul and Rigmor Gnatt had been the pioneering tiger and tigress who preceded them, since 1953). With unstinting loyalty, Kerr delivered pedigree standards of heritage repertoire (Swan Lake, Petrouchka, Prince Igor, Schéhérazade, Coppélia, Nutcracker, and much more), to put New Zealand firmly on the world ballet map. His own choreographic output was enormously prolific and gave the Company some of its greatest hits—Prismatic Variations, Carnival of the Animals, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Terrible Tom … it’s a very long list.

The spouse of such a driven choreographer is the supportive, attentive, unpaid and often invisible, kindest critic who stays calm and acts as a beacon when storms rage and finances plummet—or, in the Kerrs’ case, when Russell worked himself close to death to sustain the company endeavour, through to 1969. A disastrous fire that had destroyed almost all the Company’s resources in 1967 had not helped.

There were later periods directing Auckland Dance Centre, then the Kerrs moved to Christchurch which would remain their home until today. Southern Ballet Theatre was a highly enterprising initiative and for years productions were mounted there on a miniature scale but uncompromising in dance and music standards. There were numerous collaborations with composer, Philip Norman, and designer, Peter Lees-Jeffries, so Christchurch was well served in that time. No-one can remember how it was financed probably because there was no budget worth remembering.

June would accompany Russell to Wellington whenever he was engaged by Royal New Zealand Ballet to stage a production on the company. She was always so pleased to walk in the Botanical Gardens, to visit a gallery, or over a coffee to swap family news, always with the kindest interest and sweetest nature. ‘No I won’t have another coffee thanks. I’ll be meeting Russell for lunch in the rehearsal break so I’ll have one with him then.’ In later years the dear couple would still venture out together to a local café and continue their lifelong habit of people-watching in public places. ‘That’s where you learn about different characters—how they move, what they look like, you can guess much of their experiences from such things. It’s like research for choreography,’ Russell would say.

They were still holding hands when June died last week. The photos on the order of service show a fine-boned, wide-eyed, gorgeous redhead, gamine beauty, a shade reminiscent of Moira Shearer (the ballerina in the famed film, The Red Shoes ). Ballet in New Zealand owes much to the Kerr family.

In 1940, June, aged 8, was on the list of children to be repatriated out of war-time London to live out the duration of the war elsewhere, in her case on the SS City of Benares to Canada. For reasons never explained, her parents removed their daughter from the passenger list the day before it sailed, and just as well because the ship was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic.

June would later tell that story, and when asked ‘What happened to the 90 children on board?’ would answer ‘Oh, they were all saved’ and she went to her grave believing that to be so. In fact, 77 of the 90 children on board died, but it’s a reasonable guess June’s parents believed that an 8-year-old didn’t need to know that. It was a heart-stopping moment at the funeral to learn about what was probably the only ‘lie’ anyone ever told to this kind and trusting woman

June Kerr: Born South-end-on Sea, England, 12 June 1932; married Russell Kerr, 1 son, 1 daughter; died Christchurch, New Zealand, 29 October 2018

A version of this obituary first appeared in The Dominion Post on 24 November 2018. Sources: Russell Kerr, David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Keith McEwing.

Featured image: June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations. Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt; designed by Raymond Boyce. New Zealand Ballet 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

 

 

 

 

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright (1956–2018)

Douglas James Wright, dreamer of dances
by Jennifer Shennan

Douglas Wright, dancer, choreographer, writer, poet, visual artist, has died at the age of 62.

An obituary is normally about the deceased, but I begin with my declaration of conflict of interest (actually, deeply shared interest)—namely, that Douglas is the single most important artist in my life. His fearless vision through an astonishingly prolific artistic output moved us beyond comfort, beyond normalcy, beyond the already known. Not fantasy, not surrealism, not escapism, but expressionist art of the highest order, framed with wit—dark, caustic, incorrigible, ironic and hilarious by turns, and teeming with alternative perceptions of the natural and social givens. As a New Zealand artist across five genres, Douglas Wright remains a phenomenon without peer.

The Solomon Islands term for a choreographer translates as ‘dreamer of dances’. That epithet pleased Douglas since he often referenced Morpheus, god of dreams, son of Hypnos, god of sleep. His last dance, commissioned by art gallery director Michael Lett, was exquisitely performed by Sean MacDonald at Tempo Dance Festival in October, with final rehearsals conducted at the hospice. Titled M_Nod, with Morpheus in mind, it incorporated a James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, an aesthetic that suited Douglas well. The work was dedicated to the late Sue Paterson, Douglas’ long-standing colleague and friend.

In 1998 Douglas was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2000 a Laureate of The Arts Foundation. His company, Douglas Wright and Dancers, only ever received project-based funding from the Arts Council and there can be no easy way to analyse why his phenomenal talent was not better supported and continuously facilitated across the decades. Permanent funding of company management and adequate resources to tour his work internationally were what he wanted and deserved, but they were never forthcoming. In that, we let down both him and ourselves.

Now that Douglas is safely silenced, the tributes are flowing in torrents. Our best honour to him however is to remember his work, and lucky we are that he has written about dance, the most ephemeral of the arts, in depth and detail. The outstanding video documentary Haunting Douglas by Leanne Pooley (Spacific Films) is the finest portrait of a dance artist anywhere.

A consummate man of the theatre, the words Douglas loathed most were ‘bland’ and ‘boring’. His constant attention was to our experiences—the public, the personal and the private. If it had happened, or been thought or dreamt, then spit it out, say it loud, choreograph it, write it, draw it, sculpt it, tell it as it is. If some audiences or critics took offence, at least they were not bored. It was proof they were engaged. An indelible image remains—from Black Milk—when Three Graces, dressed in nurses’ uniforms, brought forward a tray of medical syringes then knelt to inject the stage floor, presumably a local anaesthetic to help us through what was to follow.

Douglas certainly had a gift for naming his dances—listen to them—Now is the Hour, Passion Play, How on Earth, As It Is, Buried Venus, Inland, Forever, Black Milk, Rapt, The Kiss Inside. He did not need tertiary education to lead him to literature, but as a school boy simply raided the library. His voracious reading habits included an early affinity with the writings of Janet Frame. His memoir, Ghost Dance, (Penguin, 2004, awarded the Montana prize for Best First Book) makes clear the abiding importance of his relationship with artist Malcolm Ross. (David Eggleton’s 2004 review for The Listener of Ghost Dance is definitive).

Douglas grew up in rural New Zealand, in Tuakau. The place name means tu = to stand, akau = river bank. You get a good view of a river when you stand on its bank. You get a good view of Douglas Wright through Pooley’s documentary, about his childhood intrigue at the woman dancing in a white dress on the porch of the neighbouring house in moonlight (‘…perhaps she was a moth who laid her eggs in me’) and fascination with his grandmother taking him to Catholic Mass (later referenced in Halo, for Royal New Zealand Ballet).

To his father’s disgust, rugby held no interest for the child but Douglas’ childhood talent for gymnastics brought him junior champion status and photos reveal a strength, grace and line that would eventually lead him to dance. The boy travelled alone from Tuakau to Auckland for regular training sessions, which led into the darkness of predatory sexual abuse in bus stations as bad as anything you’ve imagined. He was robbed of his childhood and the scars lasted for life, yet he could later communicate the complexity of the experiences without letting it destroy him. One poem, in his volume CactusFear (Steele Roberts, 2011) tells us about it, if you can get through it without crying.

After leaving school there was a dramatic drug career, eventually supplanted by his dance career, initially with Auckland-based Limbs Dance Company (1980–1983). Teacher Dorothea Ashbridge imparted the ballet technique that helped Douglas ‘map my body … give names and directions to movements my body already knew’. He spent 1983–1987 with Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, a spectacular career, with performances and choreography (Hey Paris, Faun Variations) still remembered decades later by New Yorkers who probably see six dance performances every week.

Douglas’ astonishing strength combined with lyricism can be seen in DV8’s talisman and horrifyingly brilliant work by Lloyd Newson, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, in 1988 (available on dvd). Back in New Zealand Douglas’ grief at losing friends to Aids is choreographed into Elegy, 1992. Although not the death sentence it once signaled, Douglas’ own HIV diagnosis was encompassed in choreographies Forever and Ore.

In 1993 Russell Kerr cast Douglas in the title role of his production of Petrouchka for Royal New Zealand Ballet, described in Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (VUP, 2013). His insights into performing that celebrated role, created by Nijinsky, are rare, if not unique, in the annals of ballet history. Douglas wrote what Nijinksy was unable to.

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Three works commissioned by Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Decay of Lying (1992), Rose and Fell, (1997) and Halo (2000) are all remembered by the dancers. Critics were challenged, as critics often are, but Douglas remained disappointed that the company never re-staged any of those works.

Douglas’ mercurial and multi-faceted personality was reflected in his works—by turns ecstatic (Gloria, A Far Cry); melancholic (Terra Incognito, Black Milk); grief-stricken (Elegy, Rose & Fell); satirical (The Decay of Lying); gender-shifting (Hey Paris, Forever); political (Black Milk); spiritual (Rapt, The Kiss Inside). We sense that whatever happened to him surfaced somewhere in one of his choreographies, but were never just about himself. He staged themes that may have shocked, or saddened, but they rang with truth.

Douglas released the artistry in many dancers and they know who they are. Lisa Densem (in the astonishing photo montage by Peter Molloy on the cover of the Pooley documentary) told me, ‘After you’ve worked with Douglas you have had more than a dance experience. He lets you become his friend.’

Several dancers became his muses: Debbie McCulloch with whom he shared an early close rapport; the enigmatic ‘goddess-like’ Kilda Northcott; Sarah Jayne Howard, a fiery furnace of a performer. Alex Leonhartsberger danced like Douglas-come-again, then Sean MacDonald became the final trusted courier of Douglas’ dream visions. Repertoire has been expertly staged in recent years by rehearsal director, Megan Adams.

There were only the briefest tours taking Douglas’ works abroad, yet, had that been responsibly managed and financed, he would have earned an international reputation as the Pina Bausch of the Southern Hemisphere. Nought to be done about that now but live with it. At least his treasures are in Nga Taonga Film & Sound Archive, in art galleries, on bookshelves, and in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Douglas once asked me how baroque dance works—not that he wanted to perform one, just to understand how people danced in different times and places, so I showed him. He instantly caught the implications of the highly stylised technique, then quoted Louis XIV to me, and in one hour learned a sarabande that would take a ‘normal’ student a year to master.

Five of Douglas’ drawings, purchased by the Chartwell Collection for Auckland Art Gallery, hang in a current exhibition there alongside works by Colin McCahon, by Gretchen Albrecht (who provided the backdrop for Douglas’ first full-length work, Now is the Hour) and Jim Allen, celebrated sculptor of light. Douglas’ note alongside his work reads, ‘The figures in my drawings are verbs not nouns’. A number of these drawings are incorporated into his volume of poetry, Laughing Mirror, (Steele Roberts, 2007) where he famously penned the line, ‘Never trust an artist who is always trying to explain their work’.

Perhaps Auckland City Council might consider converting Douglas’ council flat, his home for many decades, in Norgrove Ave, Mt. Albert, into a choreographic residence? Alongside all else, Douglas was a perfectionist, not to say obsessive, gardener. The ancient cycads growing there (he would groom the spider webs off them with a toothbrush) might inspire a younger generation of home-grown dance-makers. Goodness knows, the country needs them.

Helen Aldridge, a Waiheke teacher and arts advocate, commissioned from Douglas a choreography to commemorate the life of her daughter, Deirdre Mummery, who died of an accidental drug overdose. Helen told me she did not know what to expect—perhaps a lament, or lachrimae? Instead, Douglas produced the exquisite Gloria, to Vivaldi, celebrating the life of his young friend. Gold silk-clad dancers fly and twist and turn in an airborne wonder. It’s the best dance ever made, by anyone, anywhere.

Beautifully filmed by Alun Bollinger, it’s there on YouTube (note, inexplicably, in two parts), posted anonymously by ‘a Rugby supporter’. Where is James Joyce when you need him?

Douglas is survived by his loyal and devoted mother, Pat, and the dancers of New Zealand.

Douglas James Wright: born 14 October 1956, Pukekohe; died 14 November 2018, Auckland

Acknowledgements: Megan Adams, Helen Aldridge, Lisa Densem, Sarah (Lawrey) George, Sean MacDonald, Keith McEwing, Leanne Pooley, Turid Revfeim, Guy Robinson, Anne Rowse, Roger Steele

This obituary is posted with the permission of The Dominion Post where it appeared on 17 November 2018.

Featured image: Douglas Wright, 2006. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

 

Ghost Dance by Douglas Wright

For other posts on this website about Douglas Wright, including reviews about some of the works mentioned above, follow this link. See too the review of Douglas Wright’s memoir, Ghost Dance, also mentioned above, at this link.

Jocelyn Vollmar in the Borovansky production of 'Symphonie fantastique', 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer

Jocelyn Vollmar (1925–2018)

American ballerina Jocelyn Vollmar has died in San Francisco at the age of 92. Born in San Francisco, Vollmar began her dance training aged 12 at San Francisco Ballet School under William Christensen and Gisella Caccialanza. As a student she danced in the first American Coppélia and the first American full-length Swan Lake in 1940. She joined San Francisco Ballet in 1943 and her roles in the following years included the Snow Queen in Nutcracker in 1944, and Myrthe in Giselle in 1947 with guests Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. In the late 1940s she danced as a principal with New York City Ballet and Ballet Theatre and studied further in Paris with Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska. She also danced with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in the early 1950s.

Vollmar was invited by Edouard Borovansky to come to Australia as ballerina with his Borovansky Ballet for his season beginning in 1954. Her first role with the Borovansky company was the Street Dancer in Le beau Danube where critics praised her ‘talent for mime’ and her ‘spirited dancing.’ Over the course of a two year term with the Borovansky Ballet, Vollmar  danced leading roles in all the company’s productions including the classics such as GiselleLes SylphidesNutcracker in a new production by David Lichine, and Swan Lake Act II, and in the Borovansky Ballet’s stagings of the Ballets Russes repertoire including PetrouchkaLes Presages: Fifth SymphonyLa Boutique fantasqueScheherazade and Le beau Danube. Her partners with the Borovansky Ballet included Vassilie Trunoff and Royes Fernandez and fellow principal dancer, Peggy Sager, spoke of the great versatility she brought to the company during her brief time with them.

Vollmar returned to San Francisco when the Borovansky Ballet went into recess in 1956 and, although invited to return to Australia for the next Borovansky season, she decided to stay in her home city. She danced with San Francisco Ballet until 1972. On retirement from performing Vollmar took up teaching and when Helgi Tomasson took over San Francisco Ballet in 1985 he invited her to teach in the company school, where she taught and coached upper division classes until 2005.

Jocelyn Vollmar. Born San Francisco 25 November 1925; died San Francisco 13 July 2018.

Michelle Potter, 8 August 2018

Featured image: Jocelyn Vollmar in the Borovansky production of Symphonie fantastique, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer

Nigel Preston Boyes (1959-2018)

Nigel Preston Boyes (1959–2018)

Nigel Preston Boyes,  born Marton, 7 December 1959–died Wellington 2 July 2018
Office Manager, Royal New Zealand Ballet

by Jennifer Shennan

Nigel Boyes was a hugely competent arts administrator, as well as honorary archivist, for over ten years at the Royal New Zealand Ballet. He was the union spokesperson for the dancers, and their friend and mentor, member of a number of choirs, helpful colleague and cheerful friend to everyone he met. Nigel was diagnosed with lung cancer in late April. He stayed calm and stoic, and died (in Mary Potter Hospice, listening to Mozart) just two months later. The suddenness of that departure has left his family and friends reeling in shock, since Nigel never drew attention to himself but always acted in the role of supporter and listener, always in the service of others, always with a sense of fair play. The funeral at Old St Pauls on Friday 6 July drew many from far and wide to ‘farewell a beloved brother’ (that’s the title of an early composition by J S Bach) and was testament to the esteem held for this quiet, unassuming man claimed by so many people as best friend, or at least the most decent person they ever met.

Nigel’s departure has left questions hanging …   ‘Who on earth do we go to now? What’s so & so’s mobile number? Why won’t these computer attachments open? What restaurant is open on a Monday evening? Can you do an extra tour of RNZB Wardrobe for some youngsters between scheduled bookings? Can you find extra passes for the Dress Rehearsal for these folk who are out of work and down on their luck? Can you order in more copies of RNZB at Sixty and, the next time he’s in, get Jon Trimmer to sign them before you pack merchandise for the tour? Could you design the program for the Russell Kerr lecture? How will we fund the refreshments? Is that injured dancer recovering from surgery? Can you find a photo of the 1983 production of Ashley Killar’s No Exit? Who is teaching class tomorrow?’ All the small questions which make the biggest difference. Nigel always said yes to every request, knew the answers to the questions, or made it his business to find out who did.

Nigel, born in 1959, was the third of four sons of Phil and Sybil Boyes. Phil, an accountant, was Rangitikei County Clerk at Marton.  Nigel attended Marton primary and intermediate schools. Secondary schooling was at Rathkeale College in Masterton where, inspired by music mistress Faye Norman, he joined in a wide range of music activities—in the choir, and as principal pianist with the college orchestra. Later Nigel sang in several choirs—New Zealand Opera Chorus, Orpheus Choir, and most recently Inspirare, chamber music ensemble. Mark Stamper, director of Inspirare, sent a message …

I first met Nigel at his audition for Inspirare. He had a wonderful smile, bounce in his step, and a spirit that captivated me. We talked for almost an hour. This spirit and joy continued throughout every rehearsal, coffees at the St. James Mojo, and all other times with Nigel. The world was a more loving, joyful, and helpful place when he was here.

After completing a BA at Massey University in Palmerston North, Nigel then worked for his brother Paul in his landscape and design company in Rotorua from 1991–1995. Designer Landscapes held contracts at Rainbow Springs for a number of years, and Nigel  maintained an interest in gardening throughout his life. Nigel worked in the United States in the mid-90s, for a time as Marketing Assistant to the Director of Listings at the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. He had a lively interest in travel, visited Greece, cruised on the Rhine, and visited Boston and New York regularly to keep up with friends there.  He adored visiting Mexico and, on regular dates here with a friend over a margarita, would keep alive the spark of his intention to holiday there again.

Meantime Nigel drove almost every weekend to visit his ageing mother in Wanganui. He would mow the lawns and trim the hedges of the family home in Marton and be back in Wellington in time for choir practice. At a garden working-bee at Jon and Jacqui Trimmer’s home in  Paekakariki, Nigel was first up the ladder with secateurs and the last one to down tools. He hated leaving any task unfinished.

Being gay was important to Nigel and he was a supportive friend to many. He was outraged whenever he learned of discrimination or injustice, and worked with courage, discreetly but tirelessly, to put things right. He was a peacemaker and has left the world a better place. We are just all very sorry that he has left it. Nigel is survived by his mother Sybil, his three brothers Michael, Paul, Simon and their families.

Discussions are under way to establish an award in Nigel’s name to encourage music studies among dancers.

Sources: Simon Boyes, Terry Sheat

Jennifer Shennan, 8 July 2018

Featured image: Nigel Preston Boyes (1959-2018)

Nigel Preston Boyes (1959-2018)

Eliza Sanders from the 'Enigma' series. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. November 2017

  • ACT Arts Awards 2017

The ACT Arts Awards for 2017, an initiative of the Canberra Critics’ Circle, were announced in Canberra on 27 November. The major award, ACT Artist of the Year, sponsored by the weekly newspaper City News, went to dancer, choreographer and director, Liz Lea. This award is the subject of a separate post at this link.

In the wider category, where awards go to ACT-based artists across the various performing arts genres, the visual arts and literature, two dance awards were given.

  • Photographer Lorna Sim was awarded ‘For her outstanding contribution to dance in the ACT through her photography of dance, and her 2017 exhibition of dance photographs Enigma.’ One of her remarkable images from Enigma is the featured image on this post.
  • Katie Senior and Liz Lea shared an award ‘For their moving and elegiac dance work That extra ‘some created in celebration of a remarkable friendship.’ For a review of this work follow this link.

Katie Senior at the ACT Arts Awards 2017

Katie Senior (foreground) at the ACT Arts Awards, 2017

  • David Vaughan (1924–2017)

I was saddened to hear of the death in October in New York of British-born dance archivist, historian and critic David Vaughan. I first met Vaughan in  the early 1990s when I was doing research for my doctoral thesis, which concerned Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and their collaborations with Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Vaughan was the generous archivist of the Cunningham Foundation. I met up with him several times after that and was proud to be a co-curator with him and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner of the exhibition INVENTION. Merce Cunningham and Collaborators at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, New York, in 2007.

David Vaughan’s writing has been widely published in a variety of formats, but the two works that stand out in my mind are his spendid work on the ballets of Frederick Ashton, originally published in 1977 and revised in 1999— Frederick Ashton and his ballets. Revised edition (London: Dance Books, 1999)—and his equally impressive Merce Cunningham. Fifty years (New York: Aperture, 1997), and its accompanying app.

Press conference, Libary for the Performing Arts, New York, 2007. Foreground Merce Cunningham, background (l-r) curators Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, David Vaughan, Michelle Potter

Press conference, Library for the Performing Arts, New York, 2007. Foreground Merce Cunningham, background (l-r) curators Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, David Vaughan, Michelle Potter

  • Degas from Scotland in London

Just recently I saw a small, but quite beautiful show called Drawn in colour. Degas from the Burrell at the National Gallery in London. The works by Degas came mostly from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, although some items, designed to expand the exhibition, came from elsewhere. The items from the Burrell Collection have rarely travelled before, and most were new to me. I especially liked the one I have chosen as illustration, The green ballet skirt, for the gorgeous way Degas has painted the skirt being so carefully treated by the dancer before (I am assuming) she goes on stage.

The Degas paintings, drawings and sculptures on display in this show are part of an extensive collection of art works given to the city of Glasgow by a wealthy Glaswegian shipping merchant, Sir William Burrell. The exhibition runs from 20 September 2017 to 7 May 2018. More at this link.

Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas, The Green Dress, about 1896-1901

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The Green Ballet Skirt (ca. 1896). Pastel on tracing paper, 45 x 37 cm. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.242) © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

  • Press for November 2017

‘Moving towards inclusion.’ Preview of the dance component of the Detonate program at Belconnen Arts Centre. Panorama (The Canberra Times), 25 November 2017, pp. 10–11. Online version

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2017

  • Late addition (2 December 2017)

I have just received a link to the latest edition of the remarkable Dance Books catalogue and, rather than wait until my January dance diary, I am including it here as a late addition—a source of Christmas gifts? Follow this link

Featured image: Eliza Sanders from the Enigma series. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Eliza Sanders from the 'Enigma' series. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Portrait of Tamara Tchinarova, 1941. Photo Fred Breen

Tamara Tchinarova Finch (1919–2017)

I was saddened to learn of the death of Tamara Tchinarova Finch on 31 August 2017 in Spain at the age of 98. Her story is told in her autobiography Dancing into the unknown and this post is simply a short, belated tribute to her, which includes details of a rather amazing occurrence with which I was fortunate enough to be involved.

Tchinarova’s Australian connections include performances with the Ballets Russes companies during their Australasian tours in the 1930s; with the Kirsova Ballet in the early 1940s; and with the Borovansky Ballet in the mid-1940s. She was also briefly engaged to Australian press photographer, Fred Breen, who took the photographic portrait of her that I have used as the featured image for this post. Breen joined the Air Force during World War II but was killed in 1942. In 1943 Tchinarova married actor Peter Finch in Sydney and a few years later moved to London with him, but they divorced in 1959. She continued, however, to use his name for the rest of her life, although in most cases in this post I have opted to use Tchinarova only.

In later life, Tchinarova came to Australia in 1994 as a guest of the Australian Ballet. Along with her colleague from the Ballets Russes, Irina Baronova, Tchinarova gave a series of lectures in various places and, during the Canberra leg of that visit, I was able to record a short oral history with her for the National Library. Here is a two minute excerpt from that interview in which Tchinarova talks about Hélène Kirsova. The complete interview and transcript is available online at this link.*

I met Tchinarova again, and her daughter Anita, in New Orleans at a Ballets Russes conference/reunion in 2000 but in 2004 a remarkable event occurred. I was dance curator at the National Library at the time and in that capacity I received an enquiry from Moscow via the now defunct website, Australia Dancing. The enquiry culminated in the discovery that Tchinarova had a half-brother and a second family in Moscow. The story is told in the November 2004 issue of National Library of Australia News, available via this link. Tchinarova met her half-brother in Spain in 2006 and in her autobiography she talks about that meeting. Below is a brief extract from her discussion of the meeting:

I am now 87. On a sunny day here in Spain last week, my half brother Alexander and I met for the first time. He is 77 and came from Moscow with his daughter Ludmila, to meet the sister he had for 60 years been searching for … This stranger, Alexander, had all the qualities I love in a man—intelligent, articulate, interested in everything … How wonderful that we were able to meet towards the end of our lives. One has to wonder about Fate.**

Tamara Tchinarova Finch was a beautiful, intelligent, caring woman. It was such a privilege to have had a hand in that meeting. Vale Tamara.

Tamara Tchinarova Finch: Born Bessarabia, Romania, 18 July 1919. Died Marbella, Spain, 31 August 2017.

Michelle Potter, 26 September 2017

*The transcript was never corrected. It contains a number of spelling errors.

**Tamara Tchinarova Finch, Dancing into the unknown. My life in the Ballets Russes and beyond (Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books, 2007) pp. 207–208.

Featured image: Portrait of Tamara Tchinarova, Sydney 1942. Photo: Fred Breen. National Library of Australia, Papers of Tamara Finch, MS 9733.