Below is a link to a paper I gave on 8 July 2023 as part of a symposium organised under the auspices of the Stout Research Centre and held at Victoria University of Wellington’s Pipitea campus. The symposium, Katherine Mansfield: Last Things & Legacies, took place to mark the centenary of the death of Katherine Mansfield, New Zealand’s most celebrated short story writer.
My paper was inspired by Mansfield’s varied interest in dance as it appeared in her writing and life, in particular by a ballet focusing on that interest: Bliss choreographed by Patricia Rianne and first staged in 1986. The work of choreographers Margaret Barr and Loughlan Prior, who were also inspired by Mansfield’s interests, is also mentioned.
This month’s dance diary focuses on just one event—the 2023 Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet and the Related Arts held in the Long Hall, Wellington, on Sunday 26 February.
Russell Kerr Lecture 2023
The fifth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet and the Related Arts focused on the career of New Zealand-born dancer, Patricia Rianne. Rianne’s career has been astonishingly diverse beginning in 1959 with New Zealand Ballet, then under the direction of the company’s founder, Poul Gnatt, and continuing across the world while being interspersed with return visits to New Zealand to perform again with the national company.
This fifth Russell Kerr lecture was somewhat different from previous ones in that it was not so much a lecture as an event in which the various parts, spread over the length of the session, came together in a theatrical whole. It began with dance and music from Workbook created in the early 18th century by Kellom Tomlinson and performed on this occasion by Robert Oliver on bass viol and dancer Keith McEwing performing a Sarabande from the Tomlinson repertoire. And how many of us knew of the extent of the beats and turns that characterise this dance form—I didn’t so it was a thrill to see the dance close up. Then followed, with Rianne seated in the front row of the audience, a short biography of Rianne spoken by Jennifer Shennan with input from Anne Rowse. Throughout this spoken presentation, images of Rianne in a variety of roles were projected onto a screen giving us a clear idea of the range of companies and works in which she had appeared, and of her illustrious partners who included Peter Schaufuss, Ivan Nagy and Rudolf Nureyev.
Next up, singer Pamela Gray entertained us with a truly remarkable rendition of a Maori song E Hine (A Woman), sung a cappella (except for a moment when Gray played, briefly, a ukulele-type instrument). Riveting and very moving. Then Rianne took the floor herself and engaged in a conversation with Geordan Wilcox. This conversation was definitely a highlight, especially as Rianne explained much about her work with Russell Kerr giving those of us who did not know him personally, or work with him in any way, an insight into his methods, his choreography and his teaching and coaching skills. Very appropriate given that the lecture series honours Kerr.
The conversation concluded with video footage from Bliss, a work choreographed by Rianne in 1986 based on a short story by Katherine Mansfield.
Following her retirement from performing following the birth of her second child, Rianne began a new career in dance as a teacher, director and choreographer.
The Russell Kerr Lecture series began with the aim of presenting five events, an aim that has now been achieved, albeit with a slight hiatus due to the COVID pandemic. It is not yet clear whether a second series, or even a single 6th session, might be presented. All five in the first series have been remarkable achievements and we can but hope that somehow the series will continue.
The series: 2018 Dr Michelle Potter on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson. 2019 Dr Ian Lochhead on the visits to New Zealand of Russian ballet companies, 1930s and 1940s. 2020 Jennifer Shennan on the life and work of Douglas Wright 2021 Anne Rowse on the life and career of Russell Kerr 2023 Patricia Rianne (as above)
The featured image for this post shows dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in rehearsal for a new work from Loughlan Prior, Woman of Words, which will have its premiere at the Wanaka Festival of Colour with two performances on 27 March 2023. Woman of Words focuses on the career of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, and in a recent newsletter Prior writes:
Mansfield played a central role in modern literature by experimenting with style, subject matter and theme, with the analysis of anxiety, sexuality and existentialism embroiled within her writing. In remining true to her brilliant and singular voice, she created a body of work that redefined the genre.
Katherine’s intense, captivating and all too short a life is brought to the stage using integrated text and sound design in collaboration with award winning editor Matthew Lambourn. Beginning with her early years growing up in Wellington, to the height of London bohemia and the Bloomsbury group, to her death at the age of thirty-four, Woman of Words celebrates Katherine’s winding journey and her passion for creativity, love and life.
See this link for more about Loughlan Prior. And if Prior’s recent works are anything to go by, Woman of Words will be a courageous production.
But to my surprise (and pleasure), I was reminded that another choreographer is looking at a woman writer as the subject of a new dance work, this time for Queensland Ballet. British-born Cathy Marston is preparing a one act ballet that focuses on the work of Australian writer Miles Franklin (full name Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin). It will premiere in Brisbane on 16 June as part of a triple bill season named Trilogy. Marston has been called a ‘narrative ballet choreographer’ so it will be interesting to see how the narrative unfolds in My Brilliant Career. But two women writers as subject matter within the space of just a few months has to be somewhat remarkable!
For more about Cathy Marston and the development of My Brilliant Career, see this link from Queensland Ballet. Another link will take you to an interview with set and costume designer for My Brilliant Career, David Fleischer.
Russell Kerr Lecture 2023
From my colleague Jennifer Shennan, here is the news about the next Russell Kerr Lecture.
The fifth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts will focus on Patricia Rianne, New Zealand dancer, choreographer and teacher with an extended career both here and abroad. She was a member of New Zealand Ballet, Ballet de l’Opéra de Marseilles, Ballet Rambert (in its new guise after Norman Morrice took over the directorship from Marie Rambert), Scottish Ballet, and was memorably partnered by Rudolf Nureyev, Peter Schaufuss, Ivan Nagy and Jon Trimmer. Trisha staged classic productions and choreographed for RNZ Ballet, also in China and Hong Kong, and taught at NZSchool of Dance and London School of Contemporary Dance. Her choreography for RNZB, Bliss, inspired by the story by Katherine Mansfield, will also feature within the lecture.
Sunday 4.00—6.00pm, 26 February 2023 The Long Hall, Roseneath, Wellington. email email@example.com for registration
News from James Batchelor
It is always interesting to hear James Batchelor’s latest news as he traverses the world making work. In 2023, however, in addition to being in Europe on several occasions, he has a number of engagements in Australia, especially in Canberra and Melbourne. He lists the following as ‘upcoming in 2023’:
Performances of Deepspace and Hyperspace in Europe soon to be announced.
Performances of Shortcuts to Familiar Places in Ngunnawal Country/Canberra and Naarm/Melbourne.
Long-form workshop and creation for Canberra Dance Theatre.
New creation with students from the Victorian College of the Arts.
Residencies in Turin, Potsdam and Nîmes for research and development of collaboration Echo Field with Arad Inbar and Leeza Pritychenko.
New creation with Norrdans in Sweden.
Below is a brief trailer for Shortcuts to Familiar Places, a work in which Batchelor explores a movement lineage through his childhood dance teacher Ruth Osborne to the modern dance pioneer Gertrud Bodenwieser.
Talking to Shaun Parker
Just recently I had the pleasure of talking to Shaun Parker about his return season of KING to take place at the Seymour Centre from 24 February to 4 March as part of Sydney WorldPride. I am planning to include a longer website post ‘Talking to Shaun Parker’ in February.
My year’s list of dance highlights seems thinner than usual since a number of productions didn’t make it to curtain-up. There are no lowlights though (why would you write about lowlights?) so I’ll just call them lights.
From a screen viewing I followed with interest the choreographic venture, Journey, by Lily Bones. I remember Lily’s serene sense of line as an unusual individual dancer at both NZSchool of Dance and later in RNZBallet. After a time performing in Europe she is now based in Sydney and is a colleague there of Martin James. Her resilience in surviving serious illness, and her determination to make dances despite zero external resources has given her a maturity and quiet confidence to choreograph themes that speak and that we can hear. No glamour or glitz, just her truth. Refreshing.
It was a treat indeed to see again an Arts Channel broadcast of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Rice. Choreographed by Lin Hwai Min in 2013 (and toured to Auckland in 2017), it is talisman to their repertoire, with typically perfect proportion in shaping the cycle of rice growth and harvesting. Like all Lin’s work, there is pacing and spacing through the episodes that deliver at one level of nature at work in the titled theme, and also allegorical layers of reference to human and personal experience. The erotic sensuality in a single central duet in Rice defines the original power of creation. I own a dvd of this work but choose not to watch it alone—so how is that different from sitting alone and watching a broadcast? just a sense that there will be others out there watching ‘with me’, a feeling of being in the audience that is shaped by a performance in time. Cloud Gate’s repertoire has a strength in its Chinese legacy and vocabulary that is yet accessible to the wider world. Riveting.
Another memorable experience on screen was the final sequence by the young boy in the studio, as epilogue to the film The White Crow, the dramatisation by Ralph Fiennes of Nureyev’s defection to the west. Overall I was not as transported by the film as others seemed, but was certainly moved by how that final dance was allowed to speak for itself. Poignant.
Pump Dance Studio’s Roll the Dice also transformed the commitment of young performers into something more than the sum of its parts. Infectious.
From NZSchool of Dance, Loughlan Prior’s Verse, a solo to the Folies d’Espagne played by the consummate ensemble Hesperion XXI, shone with the clarity of a beacon, both in choreography and performance. Luminous.
Two books—by Michelle Potter on Graeme Murphy, and by Ashley Killar on John Cranko—offered insights into those prolific choreographic careers, with welcome reminders of the live performances we have seen by their companies. Revelatory.
Not from this year, but nevertheless shaped by the pandemic term we are still experiencing, the tour de force of Strasbourg 1518 by Lucy Marinkovich and Lucien Johnson, remains the total standout dance season of recent times. Their earlier work, Lobsters, also holds its place on the list of memorable works of the decade. Indelible.
It has been indeed moving to follow the heroic project by Raewyn Hill, artistic director of Co3 Contemporary Dance in Perth, where she re-staged Gloria, the celebrated work by the late Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s visionary choreographer. Immortal.
A dance lives for as long as it is remembered, and can cheat death by a measure. Russell Kerr died earlier this year, and for many people the memory of his production of Petrouchka in which he cast Douglas in the title role, also stands as an indelible milestone in this country’s dance history. Legendary.
We are looking forward to the fifth in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, in Wellington, late February. The subject will be Patricia Rianne, celebrated dancer, teacher and choreographer whose long career spans years both in New Zealand as well as UK, Europe and Asia. A delight.
Season’s greetings and good wishes to all those who watch dance, who create dances, who perform, who write and who read about dancing. Sprezzatura.
This is an expanded version of an obituary written by Jennifer Shennan and published in The Dominion Post online on 2 April 2022.
Russell Kerr, leading light of ballet in New Zealand, has died in Christchurch aged 92. The legendary dancer, teacher, choreographer and producer influenced generations of New Zealand dancers. Kerr’s hallmark talent was to absorb music so as to draw out character, narrative, human interest, emotion, poetry and comedy that ballet in the theatre can offer. Thrusting your leg high in the air, or even behind your head, just because you can, is the empty gesture of perfunctory performance that he found exasperating. Shouting and sneering at dancers, telling them they are not good enough, was anathema to him. One dancer commented, ‘Mr Kerr always treated you as an artist so you behaved like one.’
Born in Auckland in 1930, the younger of two sons, Russell was already learning piano from his mother, a qualified teacher, when a doctor recommended dance classes to strengthen against the rheumatoid arthritis that ailed the child. Did that doctor follow the remarkable career that ensued from his advice? Years later Russell was asked if it was difficult, back then, to be the only boy in a ballet school of girl pupils? He chuckled, ‘Oh no, it was marvellous—there I was in a room full of girls and no competition for their attention. It was great fun.’
Kerr made impressive progress both in dancing and piano, achieving LTCL level, then starting to teach. He could have been a musician, but dancing won out when in 1951 he was awarded a Government bursary to study abroad. In London he trained at Sadler’s Wells, with Stanislaw Idzikowski (a dancer in both Pavlova’s and Diaghilev’s companies), and also Spanish dance with Elsa Brunelleschi. Upon her advice and just for the experience, he went to an audition at the leading flamenco company of José Greco. Flamenco would be one of the world’s most demanding dance forms, both technically and musically. Remarkably, he was offered the job, providing he changed his name to Rubio Caro! How fitting that Kerr’s first contract was as a dancing musician. When asked later how he’d managed it he replied, ‘Oh, I just followed the others.’
After a time, Sadler’s Wells’ leading choreographer, Frederick Ashton, declared Russell’s body not suitably shaped for ballet. ‘I’ll show you’ he muttered to himself, and so he did. In a performance of Alice in Wonderland, he scored recognition in a review (‘Kerr’s performance as a snail was so lifelike you could almost see the slimy trail he left behind as he crossed the stage.’ As he later pointed out, ‘not many dancers are complimented in review for their slimy trails’). A sense of humour and irony was always hovering.
Kerr danced with Ballet Rambert, and was encouraged towards choreography by director Marie Rambert. Later he joined Festival Ballet, rising to the rank of soloist, earning recognition for his performances in Schéhérazade, Prince Igor, Coppélia, Petrouchka among others. Nicholas Beriosov had been regisseur to choreographer Fokine in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Kerr’s work with him at Festival Ballet lent a pedigree to his later productions from that repertoire as attuned and authentic as any in the world.
The investment of his Government bursary was exponentially repaid when Russell, now married to dancer June Greenhalgh, returned to New Zealand in 1957. He told me he spent the ship’s entire journey sitting in a deck chair planning how to establish a ballet company that might in time become a national one. Upon arrival he was astonished to learn that Poul Gnatt, formerly with Royal Danish Ballet, had already formed the New Zealand Ballet and, thanks to Community Arts Service and Friends of the Ballet since 1953, ‘…they were touring to places in my country I’d never even heard of. So I ditched my plans and Poul and I found a way to work together.’
Kerr became partner and later director of Nettleton-Edwards-Kerr school of ballet in Auckland. (I was an 11 year old pupil there. It was obvious that Mr Kerr was a fine teacher, encouraging aspiration though not competition. We became friends for life). Auckland Ballet Theatre had existed for some years but Kerr built up its size and reputation, staging over 30 productions. Perhaps the highlight of these was a season of Swan Lake on a stage on Western Springs lake. He produced a series, Background to Ballet, for Television New Zealand in its first year of broadcasting, and also choreographed many productions for Frank Poore’s Light Opera Company.
In 1959, New Zealand Ballet and Auckland Ballet Theatre combined in the United Ballet Season, involving dancers June Greenhalgh, Rowena Jackson, Philip Chatfield, Sara Neil and others. The program included Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor to Borodin’s sensuous score, and Prismatic Variations, co-choreographed by Kerr and Gnatt, to Brahms’ glorious St Anthony Chorale. Music as well as dance audiences in Auckland were astonished, and the triumphant season was repeated with equal success the following year in Wellington, when Anne Rowse joined the cast.
In 1960 a trust to oversee the New Zealand Ballet’s future was formed, and by 1962 Kerr was appointed Artistic Director. His stagings of classics—Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade—were balanced with new works, including the mysterious Charade, and whimsical One in Five. Kerr used compositions by Greig, Prokofiev, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Copland for his own prolific choreographic output—Concerto, Alice in Wonderland, Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf, The Alchemist, The Stranger. In 1964 he invited New Zealander Alexander Grant who had an established reputation as a character dancer with England’s Royal Ballet, to perform the lead role in Petrouchka, a superb production that alone would have earned Kerr worldwide recognition.
A fire at the company headquarters in 1967 meant a disastrous loss of sets and costumes that only added to the colossal demands of running the company on close to a shoestring budget. Kerr’s health was in an extremely parlous state. In 1969 Gnatt returned from Australia and as interim director, with the redoubtable Beatrice Ashton as manager, kept the company on the road.
Russell had worked closely with Jon Trimmer, the country’s leading dancer, and his wife Jacqui Oswald, dancer and ballet mistress. They later joined him at the New Zealand Dance Centre he had established in Auckland, developing an interesting new repertoire. The Trimmers remember, ‘…Russell would send us out into the park, the street or the zoo, to watch people and animals, study their gait and gestures, to bring character to our roles.’ Kerr also mentored and choreographed for Limbs Dance Company. The NZDC operated until 1977, though these were impecunious and difficult years for the Kerr family. But courage and the sticking place were found, and Russell, as always, let music be his guide.
In 1978 he was appointed director at Southern Ballet Theatre, which proved lucky for Christchurch as he stayed there until 1990, later working with Sherilyn Kennedy and Carl Myers. In 1983 Harry Haythorne as NZB’s artistic director invited all previous directors to contribute to a gala season to mark the company’s 30th anniversary. Kerr’s satirical Salute, to Ibert, had Jon Trimmer cavorting as a high and heady Louis XIV.
His two lively ballets for children, based on stories by author-illustrator Gavin Bishop—Terrible Tom and Te Maia and the Sea Devil—proved highly successful, but there was a whole new chapter in Kerr’s career awaiting. After Scripting the Dreams, with composer Philip Norman, he made the full-length ballet, A Christmas Carol, a poignant staging alive with characters from Dickens’ novel, with design by Peter Lees-Jeffries. (The later production at RNZB had new design by Kristian Fredrikson).
Possibly the triumph of Kerr’s choreographies, and certainly one of RNZB’s best, was Peter Pan, again with Norman and Fredrikson, with memorable performances by Jon Trimmer as an alluring Captain Hook, Shannon Dawson as the dim-witted Pirate Smee, and Jane Turner an exquisite mercurial Tinkerbell.
His sensitively nuanced productions of Swan Lake became benchmarks of the ever-renewing classic that deals with mortality and grief.
Leading New Zealand dancers who credit Russell for his formative mentoring include Patricia Rianne, whose Nutcracker and Bliss, after Katherine Mansfield, are evidence of her claim, ‘I never worked with a better or more musical dance mind.’ Among many others are Rosemary Johnston, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Dawn Sanders, Martin James, Geordan Wilcox, Jane Turner, Diana Shand, Turid Revfeim, Shannon Dawson, Toby Behan—through to Abigail Boyle and Loughlan Prior.
An unprecedented season happened in 1993 when Russell cast Douglas Wright, the country’s leading contemporary dancer, in the title role of Petrouchka. He claimed Wright’s performances challenged the legendary Nijinsky.
An annual series named in his honour, The Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, saw the 2021 session about his own life and career movingly delivered by his lifelong colleague and friend, Anne Rowse. The lecture was graced by a dance, Journey, that Russell had choreographed for two Japanese students who came to study with him. It would be the last performance of his work, the more poignant for that.
Russell was writing his memoirs in the last few years, admitting the struggle but determined to keep going. He said, ‘Writing about my problem with drink is going to be a very difficult chapter.’ Russell had told Brian Edwards in a memorable radio interview decades back, of the exhausting time when his colossal work commitments had driven him ‘to think that the solution to every problem lay in the bottom of the bottle.’ He eventually managed to turn that around and thereafter remained teetotal for life—but by admitting it on national radio, he was offering hope to anyone with a similar burden, himself proof that there is a way out of darkness.
He viewed the sunrise as an invitation to do something with the day. He would bring June a cup of tea but not let her drink it till she had greeted the sun. Recently he took great joy in seeing photos of my baby granddaughter, rejoicing to be reminded of the hope a new life brings to a family.
Russell concurred with the sentiment expressed in Jo Thorpe’s fine poem, The dance writer’s dilemma (reproduced in Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60):
… the thing… which has nothing to do with epitaph which has nothing to do with stone. I just know I walk differently out into air because of what dance does sometimes.
Russell Kerr was a good and decent family man, loyal friend, master teacher and choreographer, proud of his work but modest by nature, resourceful and determined by personality, honest in communication, distressed by unkindness, a leader by example. A phenomenal and irreplaceable talent, he was a very great New Zealander.
He is survived by son David, daughter Yvette and their families.
Russell Ian Kerr, QSM, ONZM, Arts Foundation Icon Born Auckland 10 February 1930 Married June, née Greenhalgh, one son (David), one daughter(Yvette) Died.Christchurch 28 March, 2022
Sources: David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Jon Trimmer, Patricia Rianne, Rosemary Buchanan, Martin James, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Ou Lu.
Jennifer Shennan, 3 April 2022
Featured image: Russell Kerr as director of Southern Ballet in 1983
The year everywhere saw curtailment of a number of dance events but the resilience in dancers’ responses still gave us plenty of highlights to savour …
Ballet Collective Aotearoa launched its long-awaited premiere season, Subtle Dances, in the Auckland and Dunedin Arts Festivals early in the year. Artistic direction of BCA by Turid Revfeim, to establish a new national independent ballet enterprise, is supported by her troupe’s pioneering and committed spirit that refuses to let funding challenges affect their vision, as further festival bookings eventuate and new sponsorship initiatives are waiting in the wings. BCA achieved an outstanding professional level of dance and music presentation with this triple-bill that premiered choreographies by Sarah Knox, Cameron Macmillan and Loughlan Prior, in collaboration with the New Zealand String Trio, who played onstage throughout. This was chamber performance of the highest order, and impressive that the two arts could bring such coherence to a triple-bill. It was further affirmation to see Abigail Boyle, nationally treasured dancer, performing at her peak. Young company member Kit Reilly is one to watch out for (he has recently received the inaugural Bill Sheat Memorial Award for a dancer prepared to commit to New Zealand identity in their career).
Later in the year Loughlan Prior achieved what is arguably his finest choreography—Transfigured Night, beautifully themed to the Schoenberg score, performed by New Zealand String Quartet in a NZChamber Music national tour, in an impressive staging where musicians and dancers again shared the stage space. The calibre of choreography, fine dancers and fabulous musicians ensured that the totality was greater than the sum of its considerable parts. That doesn’t happen just by cutting the stage into two halves, but grows out of the skill and vision of the choreographer, and willingness of the musicians to take risks (NZSQ have always been up for that). Laura Saxon Jones, another much valued New Zealand dancer, was here in her prime, as Prior, who knows her work well, intuited exactly how to create a searingly memorable role for her. Thanks to inspired set and costume design by William Fitzgerald (who also danced in the work), the unlikely space of the Fowler Centre was transformed into a grail of poignant and poetic beauty. At the end, audience members, primarily music followers, were either on their feet or reduced to tears by this outstanding work, which would hold its strength in any venue worldwide. Perhaps it is music audiences that will enlarge a future following for dance as they find music treated with equal respect as choreography, without distracting interruptions of shouting and whistling that haul balletic virtuosity out of the context of choreography (as though dancers need encouragement to tackle the next entrechat or pirouette).
Lucy Marinkovich brought her remarkable Strasbourg 1518 back to Circa Theatre after its premiere season there was cut short last year. It remains the most powerful experience of dance theatre seen here in a very long time, and its Auckland season also made huge and visceral impact. Lucien Johnson’s sound design plus saxophone drove the performers into the stratosphere. I remember the narrator from the original production, France Hervé, for the remarkable transition within her role that edged its way through the performance. No easy way to turn that alchemy into words.
Bianca Hyslop choreographed and Rowan Pierce designed Pohutu, performed for the Toi Poneke gallery, a highly effective setting for a work of empathy with unfolding references to both geographical landscape and mental inscape.
The New Zealand School of Dance graduation offered a program of interesting contrasts within the classical and contemporary vocabularies, and I felt thrilled to encounter the choreographic instinct and potential of Tabitha Dombrowski’s new work, Reset Run.
Vivek Kinra’s company Mudra presented Navarasa, to his customary highest standard of Bharata Natyam, a consistent contribution to Wellington’s artistic life for decades. One of my favourite things is to observe a dance class, to sight the seeds planted that over time grow into performance. It’s one of the ways to prepare for the privilege of writing about dance in its ephemeral, enduring path. Kinra is one of the most naturally gifted dance teachers across all genres in Wellington, in his command of discipline that is shared with, but not imposed upon, his students. In this Indian dance form there is a wonderful continuity between studio and stage which offers a cleansing and rewarding experience.
I attended a spirited gathering at Parliament, where a book documenting the Irish population resident in New Zealand was launched. Every address was laced with a song, as we are so accustomed to in Maori whaikōrero (oratory) and following waiata (song) but it was especially apparent here that Celtic dance is as readily available as song, poetry, literature, instrumental music—fiddle and pipes—as affirmations in Irish communication. No choreographer to be named here—just dancing from the heart.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s restaging of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought us many poignant reminders of the premiere season in 2016 and its stellar cast. Previous artistic director Ethan Stiefel had initially proposed and negotiated with Queensland Ballet for the two companies to share a series of productions, which was a truly exciting prospect. Queensland Ballet did mount A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 but after that, unfortunately, the project did not proceed further. But the calibre of choreography and design (Tracy Grant Lord) of Dream remains intact. It was Scarlett’s masterstroke to frame the plot with a prologue of the young child caught between fractious parents yet resolved by the epilogue, hence the genius to telescope a 500 year old theme into contemporary society. That Liam Scarlett died at 35, earlier this year, is something that Shakespeare, in heartbreaking tragedy, would be challenged to account for.
I watched on Sky Arts several sizzling programs of documentary/performance by Flamenco artists, memorably Rocio Molina. The best-made dance films for my eye are those of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, superb record of the company’s prolific repertoire in perpetuity, and their viewings always prompt me to send a message to everyone in my contacts list to watch if at all possible.
Dance reading helped fill some of the quieter stretches of the year—Michel Meylac on Russian Ballet emigrés was exactly what it claimed—whereas I found totally delightful surprise, when reading the fresh and fabulous Zadie Smith—Feel Free—to happen upon her essay Dance Lessons for Writers, in which she brilliantly couples and compares Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly … ‘aristocracy v. proletariat…the floating and the grounded …’; Harold Nicholas & Fayard Nicholas … ‘propriety and joy, choose joy…’; Michael Jackson & Prince; Janet Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé; David Byrne & David Bowie; Rudolf Nureyev & Mikhail Baryshnikov… ‘the one dancer faced resolutely inwards, the other is an outward-facing —artist…’. It’s heartening to find such perceptive analysis from a writer who is not exclusively describing dance performances, but who can trace and evaluate how these technical and aesthetic qualities resonate with the rest of our experiences.
For the fourth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, Anne Rowse brought her own 90 years alongside her decades of friendship with 91 year old Russell Kerr to trace their parallel careers—and what fabulously sustained careers those have been. The event was coupled with a celebration of Michelle Potter’s book, Kristian Fredrikson, Designer, generously supported by the Australian High Commission.
The same event also saw the launch of DNA—Dance Needs Attention, a networking enterprise to invite artistic associates to support each other as individuals in independent dance studies and writing projects. Among early tasks was the opportunity for me to read the manuscript of associate Ashley Killar’s forthcoming biography of John Cranko—a fascinating read and one certainly to watch out for.
2022 will see Patricia Rianne, in the fifth lecture of the RKL series, trace her own life and career—including the ballet, Bliss, that she choreographed after a Katherine Mansfield story, for New Zealand Ballet in 1986. There will be several seminars throughout following months in which we will celebrate Poul Gnatt’s arrival in New Zealand in 1952, when he first taught open classes in Auckland as the Borovansky Ballet toured here, before he founded the New Zealand Ballet the following year.
May we all be safe and sound through 2022… 100 years since James Joyce published Ulysees, TS Eliot published The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf is writing, Katherine Mansfield is writing… and Sergei Diaghilev invited Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Erik Satie and Clive Bell to dine together in Paris at the Majestic hotel. Wonder what was on the menu that night. Choreographic scenario, anyone?
Memories from across 40 years of life and work and people at New
Zealand School of Dance were triggered by a recent gathering.
Christine Gunn has
been on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance as classical ballet tutor
for 40 years. A celebratory gathering took place at Te Whaea, the school’s
venue, in early September to mark the occasion but no-one is taking that as a
signal of her impending retirement. The opening speech of heartfelt thanks by
director Garry Trinder acknowledged that Christine prefers not to play the diva
but just to get on with the work. He quipped how pleased he was to have found
her the perfect fridge magnet which asks ‘Would you like to speak to the person
in charge, or to the person who knows what’s going on?’ Perhaps they’ll let her
retire after another 40 years?
masterminded the art of timetabling the
curriculum for both the classical and contemporary dance streams—(this is
tantamount to completing Sudoku puzzles while simultaneously playing two Chess
games). It was not merely the timetabling skills being remembered and
celebrated however, but the dedication to teaching consistent, supportive
classical technique and repertoire classes that have guided many a ballet
student towards their performance careers. Raising her own family of two
daughters must have required further skills of time management on many
Anne Rowse was
director of the then National School of Ballet when Christine joined the staff
in 1979. With Anne, plus Dawn Sanders as part-time tutor and secretary, that
made a staff of three. How ever did they do it, in those asymmetric studios
that you had to traverse to gain access to the dressing rooms? Well, you’d
never have guessed from the calibre of the repertoire in annual Graduation
seasons in the Opera House that training conditions were anything less than
perfect. It takes hindsight to recognise pioneering of course, but the list of
graduates from New Zealand School of Dance, then and since, includes major
figures in world dance. Piano accompanists were always the best in town and,
over time, other teaching staff were appointed, new premises found, and
Turid Revfeim (who
has recently written the 50 year history of the School, and is now a tutor
there) was a student in the year Christine arrived, and she reminisced on what
was done despite those meagre resources. Turid later joined Royal New Zealand
Ballet as did many other graduates, Dawn had also earlier been a dancer with
them, and such links ensured a genuinely close rapport between the School and
the Company, at that time directed by Harry Haythorne. Students used to turn up
in droves at the theatre each night to meet the stalwart Company Managers,
Warren Douglas or Brendan Meek, themselves both NZSD graduates, for passes to
every performance of the season which those days spanned a fortnight. Standing
room if need be, but students seized every chance to glean inspiration of what
their training was all about, in the context of the theatre. The resulting
artistic harvest was bountiful, but it only grew from old-fashioned common
sense and the best kind of opportunism.
at her gathering was for students to perform an excerpt from Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco which they did with a
commendable clarity of line and musical acuity. Luke Cooper, a recent graduate
now dancing with RNZB, had organized video messages to Christine from former
students living and working afar. All the students then performed a massed
Maori tribute, a waiata with the
talisman wiri of quivering arms and
hands that breathes life into dance. The male students delivered a mightily galvanised haka taparahi that could have given the
All Blacks the shivers.
gathering was a spirited one and no doubt evoked many and varied memories among
former teachers and students of their experiences across those 40 years—of
things trained, learned, rehearsed, performed, triumphed, loved, hoped, danced
and dreamed. I’ll put the (injuries and heartbreaks) into parentheses. Nothing
about dance is easy—it’s only meant to look that way, with the grace of divine
nonchalance suggesting that you, the audience, could be dancing too.
Anne Rowse invited me to join the staff in 1982, to tutor in Dance Studies—Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, Dance notation, History & Library studies, World Dance Traditions including Pacific and Asian cultures—all the interesting things no one else
wanted to teach. How lucky was I? I also offered public courses of dance interest
through the Centre for Continuing Education of Victoria University of Wellington,
so there was some creative accounting as Anne agreed to let the School premises
be used in exchange for free places for students. Win-Win. I was also entrusted
to build up the School’s library from fairly meagre holdings, so it was surely
a stroke of luck that Smith’s Bookshop, the town’s very best second-hand
bookshop, run by Dick Reynolds, was in an adjacent building, so I could each
week sniff out dance and related arts books for bargain prices. One day, to my
astonishment I found David Garnett’s Lady
into Fox, a short story that had been famously adapted, by Andrée Howard,
into a choreography by the same name, and the one ballet I most wished I could
have seen. I consider myself quite old, but not quite old enough to have caught
it when Ballet Rambert toured here in 1949. You could search the shelves of
bookshops worldwide and not find Garnett’s stories, so this was a glint of
gold. I recall cancelling that day’s planned class and telling the students all
about Lady into Fox instead.
How poignant it
was some years later at a matinee of the School’s graduation, with the front
rows of the stalls at the Opera House filled with audience from an old folks’
home (another of Anne’s initiatives), to sight Dick Reynolds propped up in a
wheel chair, nodding and faintly clapping along as the students rollicked
through The Lancers’ Quadrille, but I
believe he was wiping away tears when Chopin’s music for the Prelude from Les
memory was a visit from the iconoclast dance-maker Mary Fulkerson from
Dartington, an important centre for the arts in Devon. Mary brought her eight
hour long performance saga, titled Don’t
Tell the Prime Minister I’m coming. The first instalments were performed across
two evenings in the Blue Room at the National Art Gallery, when director Luit
Beiringa opened those doors for us, but the third and fourth evenings were
across a weekend, posing a problem of access to the NAG. There was no budget.
(How ever did we do these things on zero budgets? Well, we just did. You could
say they were free because they were priceless, which is of course the opposite
of worthless). Anne with typical generosity handed over the school keys for the
weekend. That gesture remains as memorable as the dance itself, which ended
with Fulkerson tossing each of the eight dresses she had worn through the
evenings high up into the air, all the while still dancing, singing, and
smiling. But wait, only seven dresses ever came back down to earth. The eighth
one caught on a high ceiling beam and dislodged a decade’s worth of dust,
glinting in the light as it sent a shaft of golden stars down onto our heads. That
was 1983 but I can see that glinting still. And no, we didn’t tell the Prime
Minister Mary was coming since Muldoon wouldn’t have known what to do with the
information, though nowadays you could tell PM. Jacinda Adern, since she is
also Minister for the Arts.
The School moved
to new premises in Cable St., the entrance to which sat between adjacent
doorways—one to Cash Convertors, the other to Abundant Life Spiritual Centre,
daily reminders of the spectrum of possibilities in life as well as art. We
tried to ignore the nine months of deafening pile-driving as Te Papa
construction across the road got under way, and just got on with our work.
one of New Zealand’s most celebrated expatriate dancers, had returned home and
become Head of Classical Studies at the School, a most valued teacher and
mentor to the students. Her Summer’s Day,
to music by Jenny McLeod, and Bliss,
inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s story, were staged by RNZB and the graduates
dancing there found joy in performing them.
George Dorris and
Jack Anderson, leading New York dance writers, walked in the door one day as I
was teaching Baroque dance. I squealed in delight to recognise them, introduced
them to Anne, we both scolded them for not warning us they were coming, so they
returned a year later and gave a wonderful seminar which we also opened to the
public. We surveyed the many titles of the fabled Dance Perspectives, a series of periodicals edited by our mutual
colleague, Selma Jeanne Cohen. No other dance journal can hold a candle to this
series so I was emboldened to beg our National Library to lend us their
complete run from the Stacks. No-one had ever borrowed them because no-one knew
they were there. They do now. What a weekend we were treated to. I can’t
remember if we thanked Anne, but she will have known that the real rewards
survive in the minds and memories of those who attended. The threads that
weave, and the ties that bind.
Ann Hutchinson, leading authority in dance
notation, visited and gave a workshop in which she mounted from her score
Nijinsky’s l’Apres Midi d’un Faune,
to music by Debussy. Nijinsky was the true pioneer of modern choreography, as
well as a legendary dancer. Sad that he is remembered more for his
schizophrenia than his art, but such is the ephemeral nature of dance. The cast
of Faune calls for seven dancers, one
male and six females. As luck would have it, just 14 students turned up, two
males and 12 females, so Ann set about teaching the work to two casts and the
whole piece was completed by the end of the afternoon, which you would have to
rate a small miracle. The mercurial Warren Douglas was there that day and
danced the Faune, as well as many roles at RNZB in following years. Years later
but still young, he died tragically, of complications from Aids. It was so sad
and so wrong to have to write his obituary. We must never forget the dancers
whose lives that cursed illness snatched away. Warren might well have become a
brilliant director of RNZB, and would have changed the world.
The most treasured
heritage for me throughout my 20 years teaching at the School was undoubtedly the repertoire of
choreographies by Doris Humphrey and José Limon, pioneers of the best of
American modern dance, taught and staged by Louis Solino who had been a member
of their company in New York for years.
It was another of Anne’s courageous moves to appoint Louis to the staff, since
there might have been resistance to the distinctive technique and repertoire,
but he was an unusual and quiet genius and in fact over the years turned up
gold in a repertoire we’d have been lucky to catch in any world capital … Air for the G String, Day on Earth, The Shakers,Two Ecstatic Themes, There is a Time, La Malinche, The Unsung,
Dances for Isadora, Choreographic Offering, The Moor’s Pavane in seminar.
Later the mighty Bach Chaconne was
performed by Louis’ partner, the multi-talented Paul Jenden. Paul has since
died and a broken-hearted Louis returned to the States, but make no mistake,
anyone who ever danced in, or saw rehearsals and performances of those Limon
and Humphrey masterworks will never have forgotten them. Next month’s story
might tell the detail of how that came about.
at Christine’s celebration will have had memories like these, all the same, all
different. The following weekend, large numbers of us gathered at parties
in Paekakariki to help Sir Jon Trimmer
celebrate his 80th birthday, and his 60 years of performing with
RNZB. Jon’s sister, Coral, came from Melbourne with her harmonica in her pocket
and played jazz numbers from the 1920s like a shimmering hummingbird, cavorting
and gliding about, giving total lie to her 89 years. We knew this was her
instrument but hadn’t heard her play. Now we have. That will have to be the next next month’s story.
Between those two
gatherings, our daughter gave birth to her firstborn, a baby girl. I’ll let her
grow a while and then maybe I’ll make for
next next next month, a story about the dance-like movements of a wee,
serious, busy, tiny one as she explores the world around her, learning to latch
on and to change sides, to yawn and to hiccup, to sneeze and to gurgle, to make
frog’s leg kicks that Jeremy Fisher might envy, and, when her arms are
unswaddled, to conduct and wave at symphony orchestras. The baby as dancer—I’m
up to review that.
It was Eugene O’Neill who said, ‘‘There is no present or future—only the past,happening over and over again—now.’ I like that, so think I will help myself to his words.
Jennifer Shennan, 30 September 2019
Featured image: Christine Gunn cutting her anniversary cake. New Zealand School of Dance
This NZSD Graduation season has all the students performing with a shared confidence and total commitment that offers audiences an energising experience. That is just what Wellingtonians, recently visited by nature’s forces in a major earthquake and subsequent flooding, need for a lift of the spirits.
Meistens Mozart by Helgi Tomasson, from 1991, to seven songs by Mozart and others, is a charming little opener with the enjoyment of youth and friendship shared. Beguiling.
Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete, both of them NZSD alumnae, first staged He Taonga – a Gift in 2009. This powerful group work for an all-male cast of 14 dancers evokes the strength of haka, the most tense and intense dance on earth, yet here using more freely scaled movements of arms and torso. Potent.
The Pas de Deux Romantique by Jack Carter, from 1977, to Rossini, is staged by Patricia Rianne and Qi Huan. Mayuri Hashimoto and Jeremie Gan perform with a competence and grace that disguises all technical challenges and becomes a joy in motion. Uplifting.
The Wanderer, a solo, was made by Victoria Columbus for George Liang to dance at an international competition. Focussed.
Incant – summoning the lost magic of intuition, by Amber Haines, for an all-female cast, proves an enigmatic work exploring things felt and known in the shadow world. Atmospheric.
Dance Gallantries, by Jiri Bubenicek, to Bach sonatas and partitas, is a sharp and fast highly sophisticated work that pits ballet pairings into fresh territory by having the dancers dissolve into nano-seconds of invertebrate states here and there between their straight moves. Dazzling.
Political Mother, an excerpt from Hofesh Schechter’s work which was in a recent International Arts Festival here, is staged by Sam Coren. It is given a searing, tight and impressive delivery by a galvanized group of dancers who work with remarkable rapport. Urgent.
The final Tempo di Valse, by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, is a return to safe haven, where the sequences and formations are carried with aplomb by a large ensemble of graceful movers. Cadence.
The program is one of striking contrasts in choreography old and new, across ballet and contemporary dance, which are kept as two separate streams in the NZSD curriculum. Given the realities of the professional dance world where many a company demands a spectrum of strengths in styles across both traditional and new repertoire, one wonders what a work danced by students from both streams combined, would be like.
It’s just possible that Taonga does that already, but if so, a program note to that effect would offer us great insight towards a bi-cultural dance society, and closer link between NZSD and RNZB. Choreography by José Limon, Jiri Kylian, Michael Parmenter, Douglas Wright, Eric Languet, Cameron Mcmillan, Andrew Simmons, Neil Ieremeia, Daniel Belton, Malia Johnston and Laura Jones all come to mind, and that’s just for starters. Thought-provoking.
One’s every good wish goes to the students striking out for the next stage of their careers. A graduate company where they might test those waters would be a dream destination. Dreams are free, but do also sometimes come true. With respect, I offer this paragraph as a gauntlet.