Alison Plevey’s Australian Dance Party has a commission from the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to create a work in conjunction with the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of British street portraits from the early 19th century, drawn by John Dempsey. The portraits are beautiful miniatures of working class people in a variety of situations. Plevey’s work, called weave, hustle and halt, is on show at the National Portrait Gallery on Saturdays 2 & 9 September at various times and will reflect the activity, characters and rhythms of the modern-day streetscape. The short work will have a sound score and ‘live busking’ by two musicians from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Tim Wickham and Alex Voorhoeve. I look forward to seeing how Plevey can capture the inherent, down-to-earth beauty of these portraits.
Bathing Lady by John Dempsey
Oral history updates
Most of the interviews I have conducted recently for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program have been with people working in various areas of the visual arts. This month, however, I had the pleasure of recording interviews with Mary Li from Queensland Ballet, and of course an outstanding dancer and coach in many situations prior to Queensland Ballet, and with Shaun Parker, director of Shaun Parker & Company. Records should appear shortly on the NLA catalogue.
Press for August
‘A leap of faith.’ Preview story for Blue Love, Shaun Parker & Company. The Canberra Times, 5 August 2017, p. 11. Online version. See also this link.
‘Torment laid bare in gripping work.’ Review of Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre. The Canberra Times, 7 August 2017, p. 18. Online version.
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.
17 April 2016, the Q, Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan
In April Canberra’s youth dance company, Quantum Leap, and YDance, the National Youth Dance Company of Scotland based in Glasgow, joined forces for a once-only performance of a triple bill, 10,000 Miles. The performance was part of a wider program, ‘meetup’, involving youth dance companies from Melbourne and various parts of New South Wales, as well as Quantum Leap and YDance. For 10,000 Miles the three works on show were Act of Contact by Sara Black showcasing the Canberra dancers; Maelstrom by Anna Kenrick, artistic director of the Scottish company, which was performed by the Scottish dancers; and Landing Patterns, a piece choreographed jointly by Kenrick and Ruth Osborne, artistic director of Quantum Leap, featuring dancers from both companies.
It was an impressive show and a terrific piece of cultural contact. Apart from the strong dancing from both companies, I admired the lighting of Maelstrom, a very effective design of geometric patterns from Simon Gane.
In April I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Horsman, ballet master and director of artistic operations at Queensland Ballet, for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. The interview is open to all and has been catalogued as TRC 6774. Ongoing Federal Government cutbacks make it unlikely, however, that it will go online for a little while yet. But it can be accessed by contacting the oral history and folklore section of NLA. The NLA also holds a small but excellent collection of photographs of Horsman during his time with the Australian Ballet, taken by Don McMurdo.
Robert Helpmann: forthcoming talk
Dance Week 2016 will be in full swing when this post goes live. I will be giving a talk at the National Film and Sound Archive as part of the ACT festivities. Called ‘Helpmann uncovered’ it will look at the research I have been doing over the past year or so on certain little known aspects of Helpmann’s activities.
During April I went to see William Yang’s Blood Links, a solo show in which Yang, well-known photographer, delivered a monologue, accompanied by projections showing his extended family, in a moving search to understand his Chinese-Australian identity. While his dance photographs did not appear in this show (understandably), I was reminded of the work he did with Jim Sharman for the Adelaide Festival in 1982 when he photographed Pina Bausch. I recall with pleasure the small exhibition of this work that was displayed as part of Sydney’s now defunct festival, Spring Dance, in 2011. Yang discusses his work with Bausch and that beautiful exhibition in thelink below.
Press for April
‘Dance work challenges the senses.’ Review of FACES by James Batchelor and collaborators. The Canberra Times, 9 April 2016, p. ARTS 17. Online version.
‘Prickly attitude.’Preview of Sydney Dance Company’s CounterMove season. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 30 April 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.
Michelle Potter, 30 April 2016
Featured image: Greg Horsman, Ballet Master and Director of Artistic Operations Queensland Ballet
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.
Keir Choreographic Award 2016
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.
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
I recently had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview for the National Library with Marilyn Jones. I first interviewed Jones in 1990 as part of the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project, so this 2015 interview was a follow-up after 25 years. The image below captures, I think, the essence of Les Sylphides and Jones’ ability to dance that elusiveness.
The interview requires written permission for use so will not be available online, but in many respects oral history is for the future. I certainly have become more and more aware of its intrinsic value as time passes. The full story of the Australian Ballet strike of 1981, for example, which took place during the artistic directorship of Jones, is yet to be told. Several interviews in the National Library’s collection give a variety of perspectives and await the historian.
Other dance interviews I have recorded in the past six months have been with Peter Bahen, Lisa Pavane and David Deverelle-Hill.
On the subject of the Esso Performing Arts material, there are 41 interviews, not all of which are dance-related, in that collection and a list can be accessed via the National Library catalogue. Many are available online.
It came as something of a shock to learn that Juliet Burnett is leaving (has already left I think) the Australian Ballet. She has given me, and I’m sure many others, such a lot of pleasure over the past few years. Just recently, her performances in the leading roles in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake and Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle have suggested wonderful things to come. But let’s hope that wherever the future takes her she will find much happiness. My posts mentioning Burnett are at this link.
Press for May
‘Visiting dance troupe’s double bill a triumph.’ Review of Quintett and Frame of Mind, Sydney Dance Company. The Canberra Times, 2 May 2015, p. 19. Online version.
‘Circus acts unmissable.’ Review of ‘Le Noir: the dark side of Circque.’ The Canberra Times, 8 May 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.
‘Magical production of a great Giselle.’ Review of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra season of Giselle, The Canberra Times, 25 May 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.
My ‘best of …’ for 2014 will appear with the ‘best of …’ comments by others in the February/March edition of Dance Australia. But looking ahead to the coming year, perhaps the show I am most looking forward to (of those that have been announced so far of course) is the triple bill by the Australian Ballet that will feature Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room.
Looking back through my archive of reviews, here’s what I wrote in Dance Australia in 1997 when the work premiered in Australia during the first year of Ross Stretton’s directorship.
… [In the] Upper Room has relentless drive and a choreographic eclecticism that balances the old and the new, the classic and the contemporary. It frequently insists on a cross-over between styles and the rubbery, sleight-of-hand-looking movements that we associate with Tharp often suddenly slow down and take on a kind of genteel quality. Other times the refinement of the classical vocabulary is made to look less rarefied as it collapses into more loose-limbed movements or is performed in counter balance with more contemporary-style steps. And in all this, Tharp’s work never looks stylistically judgemental. Dance is dance.
Since then I have seen Upper Room performed by both Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and, quite honestly, despite the galaxy of stars in each of those companies, neither company has given me the thrill that I got from the Australian Ballet’s performances of 1997. They were addictive experiences. I kept going back. Let’s hope the Australian Ballet rises to the occasion in 2015! In the Upper Room opens in Melbourne in August in a triple bill entitled 20:21
I don’t have access to Australian Ballet photos of this work. The image below is from the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s website.
In December, I received an interesting comment on an oral history interview I recorded with Edna Busse in August 2014. It is available among many other comments, at the end of this post. The comment generates many issues associated with oral history as a research tool, most of which have been debated in conferences and the like dealing with the role and uses of oral history.
I drew on material from twenty-five National Library oral history interviews, and two radio recordings from an Adelaide program called ‘Theatreland Spotlight’ (preserved in the National Film and Sound Archive), in my recent biography of Dame Margaret Scott. I think the book would have lost a lot had I not had access to that material. Some of those whose interviews I used are now dead—Charles Boyd, Sally Gilmour, Paul Hammond, Geoffrey Ingram, Bruce Morrow, Noël Pelly, James Penberthy, Marie Rambert, Ray Powell, Kenneth Rowell, Peggy Sager, and Gailene Stock are among them—and their thoughts and recollections for the most part are not available in other formats.
None of this, however, takes away from the fact that interviewees may embroider upon their experiences, or misremember events (sometimes quite badly), which is the thrust of the comment. Using oral history as source material is beset by problems and is at its best when used judiciously and when the information is cross checked with other sources (if possible). Any source material is only as good as the historian who uses it.
I value immensely the comment on the Edna Busse interview as it comes from someone who was closely involved with the Borovansky Ballet and who has given me a contact to enable me to pursue the issue further. But it doesn’t take away from the value of the interview, just makes me ponder further on the care with which this very personal form of source material needs to be approached.
Press for December 2014 [Online links to press articles in The Canberra Times prior to mid 2015 are no longer available]
‘Professional productions too few. Michelle Potter’s top picks for 2014’. The Canberra Times, 23 December 2014, ARTS p. 6.
In August I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with Edna Busse, Borovanksy ballerina of the 1940s and early 1950s. The National Library had been working towards adding Edna’s memories of her life and career to its collection of dance interviews for many years, so it was a thrill that Edna, now aged 96, agreed to the invitation to participate in the program.
Other oral history interviews I recorded during August were not specifically focused on dance, but were interesting arts interviews nevertheless. They were with John Hindmarsh, founder of Hindmarsh Constructions and a major arts philanthropist in Canberra; and with artist John Olsen. The Olsen interview focused on his mural Salute to Five Bells, commissioned for the Sydney Opera House in the early 1970s. (The Olsen interview is too new to have a catalogue record). [Update October 2020: The Olsen interview is now available online at this link.]
The Johnston Collection
I was delighted to hear that the Johnston Collection, the remarkable Melbourne-based collection of decorative arts located at Fairhall House, recently received an award from the Victorian branch of Museums Australia. The award was for the Johnston Collection’s recent exhibition David McAllister rearranges Mr Johnston’s collection. The image below shows Desmond Heeley’s costumes from the Australian Ballet production of The Merry Widow, as displayed in the sitting room during the Fairhall House exhibition.
The text for my talk for the Johnston Collection as part of this award winning exhibition is at this link.
Press for August 2014 [Online links to press articles in The Canberra Times prior to 2015 are no longer available]
‘Odd mix misses the mark.’ Review of Boundless, Quantum Leap, The Canberra Times, 1 August 2014, ARTS p. 6. ‘S for spectacularly physical.’ Review of S, Circa, The Canberra Times, 8 August 2014, ARTS p. 7. ‘A swirl of colour.’ Review of Devdas the musical. The Canberra Times, 19 August 2014, ARTS p. 6.
Michelle Potter, 31 August 2014
Featured image: Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in Laurel Martyn’s Sigrid, Borovansky Ballet, ca. 1945. Photographer not known. National Library of Australia.
Gailene Stock, most recently director of the Royal Ballet School, has died from complications resulting from a brain tumour. Stock had been ill since 2013. Born in Ballarat, Victoria, and named Gail Stock by her parents, she changed her first name to Gailene at the request of Peggy van Praagh, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, who thought that the name ‘Gail’ was too short.
Stock was the middle child in a family of three girls born to Roy and Sylvia Stock. When Stock was quite small, the family moved to Perth, Western Australia, when her father, a journalist, took a job there. It was in Perth that she took her first dance lessons. When the family moved to Melbourne after a short time in Perth, Stock took up dancing more seriously at the Himing School of Dance where she studied the Cecchetti syllabus. As a teenager she studied with Paul Hammond who prepared her for her major examinations of the Royal Academy of Dance. Her dance training was interrupted for two long periods, however, first as a result of a severe bout of poliomyelitis and then following injuries sustained in a serious car accident.
Deferring a Royal Academy bursary to study at the Royal Ballet School, Stock joined the Australian Ballet, aged sixteen, for its inaugural season. But the following year, with a year’s leave of absence from the Australian Ballet, she took up her bursary and travelled to London. At the Royal Ballet School her main teacher in the theatre class, where she was placed because she had come from a company to the School, was Pamela May. Outside of the School she took classes with Maria Fay and after a nine month period at the Royal she took classes in Paris and then in Cannes with Rosella Hightower. Her classes in France were to satisfy van Praagh who thought that her dancing was very correct and that she needed a bit of French pizzazz. Before returning to Australia she danced with the Grand ballet classique de France and then with an Italian company.
Rejoining the Australia Ballet in 1965 she was cast in works by Antony Tudor and John Butler and her reputation as an exponent of dramatic roles grew. But after seven years she wanted what she has called ‘new pastures’ and joined the National Ballet of Canada on the recommendation of Rudolf Nureyev. A position as principal with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet followed. She was joined in Canada by Gary Norman whom she married while in Canada.
On their return to Australia Stock danced briefly with the Australian Ballet under Anne Woolliams before having her daughter Lisa and then directing the National Theatre Ballet School. Her next major step was the directorship of the Australian Ballet School which she took on at the end of 1989. Her last role was that of director of the Royal Ballet School. Stock has discussed her approach to her work in London at length in her oral history interview for the National Library of Australia, recorded in Melbourne in 2012. The audio is available online over the National Library’s website.The entire interview is a warm and informative account of her life and career and full of charming and sometimes very funny anecdotes about those she met and worked with during her life. Talking about her earliest dance experiences in Perth she says:
‘My debut on the stage was as a chicken and a hula girl. In the back of my mind I think I was already being a ballet mistress, teacher, director, because when we were doing our chicken dance I looked along the line and saw one of the chickens was very much out of line and lost. So I toddled over and shoved her back into line and got her into place and then went back to my own place and went on with the dance. I’ve always been obsessed with staying in line so it probably started at a very young age.’*
Stock is survived by her husband Gary Norman and their daughter Lisa.
Michelle Potter, 4 May 2014
* Gailene Stock interviewed by Michelle Potter, April 2012. National Library of Australia, TRC 6399.
I was surprised to be contacted earlier this month by the curator of the Johnston Collection, Melbourne. David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, will be a guest curator there in the first part of 2014 and will be adding some Australian Ballet costumes to the rooms of Fairhall, the house in which the collection of antiques amassed by dealer William Robert Johnston is displayed. I will be presenting a lecture at Fairhall in June—From bedroom to kitchen and beyond: women of the ballet. More later.
Fantasy Modern: Andrew Montana
Over the holiday break I enjoyed reading Andrew Montana’s biography of Loudon Sainthill, Fantasy modern: Loudon Sainthill’s theatre of art and life, published in November 2013 by NewSouth Books. There are a few irritating typos and errors (Alicia Markova wasn’t married to Colonel de Basil—at least not as far as I know!) and some odd references in the notes. But, as ever, Montana has researched his topic very thoroughly and, while it is essentially a book written by an art historian, it gives a fascinating glimpse of the cultural background in which Sainthill and his partner Harry Tatlock Miller operated. That background of course includes Sainthill’s commissions for Nina Verchinina during the Ballets Russes Australian tours, as well as his work as a designer for Hélène Kirsova, and his activities during the Ballet Rambert Australasian tour of 1947–1949. In addition it was Harry Tatlock Miller who was responsible (in conjunction with the British Council) for bringing the exhibition Art for Theatre and Ballet to Australia. There is some interesting information too about the 1940s documentary Spotlight on Australian Ballet. So Fantasy Modern is interesting reading for dance fans as well as historians of theatre design.
I was pleased to hear recently from Barbara Cuckson that Sydney-born Bodenwieser dancer, Eileen Kramer, had returned to her city of birth. Not only that, she has reached the grand old age of 99. She is seen below on her 99th birthday wearing a Bodenwieser costume, which she designed all those years ago.
Eileen recorded an oral history interview for the National Library in 2003. It is available for online listening at this link.
In December I am always interested to know what tags have been accessed most frequently over the preceding year. Here is the list of the 10 most popular tags for 2013:
Hannah O’Neill; Ty King-Wall; The Australian Ballet; Ballets Russes; Paris Opera Ballet; Olga Spessivtseva; Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet; Leanne Stojmenov; Athol Willoughby; Meryl Tankard.
Visitors to the site may also be interested in what is probably the last comment for 2013. I am attaching a link to a book review I wrote in January 2012. Scroll down to the comments in which one reader queried whether the author of At the Sign of the Harlequin’s Bat, Isabelle Stoughton, is still alive. As you can read, she is.
Past and future grace
And finally I couldn’t help but notice a sentence in a roundup of events for 2013 by Fairfax journalist Neil McMahon. Writing of Australian political happenings over the past year he said: ‘The policy pirouettes on both sides were en pointe, but graceless’. I’m not holding my breath for a graceful political scene in 2014. The dance scene might be better odds!
Here too is an extract from an interview I recorded with Volkova in 2005 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection in which she talks briefly about arriving in Australia for the first time. The full interview is not presently available online, but here is the catalogue record. I used this extract previously, with Volkova’s permission, in a talk I delivered at the National Gallery of Australia in 2011 called ‘We’re going to Australia: the Ballets Russes Down Under’.