From the program note: ‘Ballet Noir is a meditation on Giselle Act II as viewed though a Film Noir lens.’ We all know Giselle of course—or do we? I certainly found new resonance in this innovative and stylish treatment of the Giselle story, which incorporates both old and new elements—bringing the timeless themes of broken trust and hearts, forgiveness and love, up against the forces of vengeance and cynicism. It’s a contemporary reading less concerned with narrative, more with psychology of personalities, and should move both diehard balletomanes as well as first timers in the audience.
That achievement grows from Mary-Jane O’Reilly’s respectful treatment of ballet, while simultaneously being a force for contemporary dance. She trained at National School of Ballet, now New Zealand School of Dance—also in London—and danced with New Zealand Ballet when Poul Gnatt directed. MJ has choreographed the major work, Jean (about Jean Batten) for RNZB, as well as directing, dancing and choreographing for Limbs Dance Company from late 1970s until 1986, with her colleague, the late Sue Paterson.
It is apparent to anyone who thinks about it that ballet/contemporary dance/dance theatre are no longer useful or discrete categories, and certainly not opposites. Leading American dance writers—Selma Jeanne Cohen, Jack Anderson and Joan Acocella—have discussed these topics for years and their writings help us recognise the ways in which dance styles and techniques evolve and reflect the cultural and social contexts of their respective countries and companies. That’s a much richer complex than the binary of ballet/non-ballet. The really interesting professional dance companies in the world require equal strength and versatility in classical and contemporary techniques and interpretation, with dancers ready for whatever a choreographer might require. Ballet Noir straddles this perceived divide with great aplomb. It’s very clever to stage highly trained classical dancers in a contemporary psychological setting, which in turn for me resonates with how Antony Tudor choreographed his masterpieces.
There’s an 8-member troupe of The Cynics, (The Wilis to you), who stride and mince, twist and pose in high style of fashionable black, wearing soft ballet flats but on such high demi-pointe as to stab you with their stiletto heels a mile high. Their temps levé and penchée motifs are timed to the familiar music by Adam, but there are also interpolated soundscapes that take us to new places. Despite their strut, The Cynics are actually in the grip of the devastating Ice Queen, phenomenally played by Shona Wilson, long-time Auckland dance figure from the days of Limbs. We’ve never seen Myrthe dance quite like this before, and there are intriguing flashbacks for us to piece together her own backstory to explain this relentless revenge she holds against men. Shiver me timbers, she gave me the goosebumps.
Giselle is a naive and lovely girl, the young bride who never quite makes it to the altar. Her vulnerable character grows in strength as she finds how to stand up to the Ice Queen, and there are poignant sequences in a beautifully shaped role. I saw two performances with a change of cast of soloists—Amy Moxham and Lucy Lynch each giving Giselle a convincing presence.
Two young men stray onto the scene—a couple of spivs, let’s call them Hilarion and Albrecht, out for a night on the town. (There’s no Act I in this story). Their dual routines are comic and clever—Jacob Reynolds and Oli Matheison in one cast, Kit Reilly and Thomas Harris in the other—giving as good as they get. Then acid rain starts to fall and they are sucked in to a circle of vengeance not of their own making, as though a nasty scene developed somewhere in the town sometime in the night, and it’s possible they won’t get to see the dawn, though any police will have quite a hard time piecing together what actually happened. We witnessed it though, so we could be interviewed.
Throughout the work there’s a backscreen of film sequences that range from slow and oily raindrops to a slow-motion tear running down a cheek, an exquisite crescent moon and a stormy sky, marauding packs of wild dogs and a silly little skit of a dog in a neck ruff doing tricks at a party, wee toddlers playing, grown men sparring. This all may sound like a distraction but in fact was fully absorbed into the danced work throughout.
The design of costumes, with several quick changes in the shadows sidestage—long tulle skirts flashing around like evil cloth, then as capes of birdwings. The Ice Queen first wears a long pointed (clear perspex) beak facemask, like some Scandinavian mid-winter ritual dress-up, but in one gesture lifts that high onto her head to become a queen’s crown, or is that a unicorn horn. You tell me. I appreciated the way that a number of motifs through the work were open for personal reading, and all of them will be right readings.
This is an impeccable production that deserves to be widely seen, and would do well in a number of arts festivals. It’s emotionally nuanced, tight and spare, savvy and sexy. Albrecht and Giselle dance their lyrical lovemaking and I get the goosebumps yet again.
It is just a week since Jon Trimmer died, but his dancing life had been the stuff of legend for decades already. He was the country’s premier ballet dancer, joining New Zealand Ballet in 1959. With only a few short periods abroad, and with Russell Kerr at the Auckland Dance Centre in the early 1970s, he remained with the Company till the age of 79. That has to be a career of unprecedented longevity in the ballet world. We’re not just talking quantity though, it’s the quality that counts.
Jon was knighted in 1999 for his outstanding career, but he nevertheless remained the kind, trusted and modest mentor and friend to many a young or mid-career dancer who ever needed advice or deserved encouragement along the way. Jon chose not to take on the role of Artistic Director, even though there was a vacancy several times, rightly sensing that such positions have a finite term, and he was committed to this company for life.
Early images of Jon Trimmer. Courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet
The splendid classical technique and intrinsic musicality in Jon’s early years saw him dance all the noble roles with finesse and sensitivity. He was an intuitive actor as well, so his reading of Albrecht in Giselle, for example, could cover the complex emotions in that role not always explored by everyone who dances it. He was the poet personified in Les Sylphides, a fine prince in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and a deeply moving James in La Syphide. Poul Gnatt of course had infused that distinctive and vivacious Bournonville style in which the company he founded excelled under his direction.
Jonty, as he became affectionately known, partnered many fine dancers during his long career. Patricia Rianne who danced Giselle,La Sylphide and Sleeping Beauty with him, has written from London:
It is with great sadness that news of Jonty’s passing has reached me. He was a true creature of the theatre giving decades of his artistry to the audiences of New Zealand during his stoic membership of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. We danced together many times but most memorable were our performances of Giselle under Russell Kerr ‘s Directorship for RNZBallet in early 1970. Jon was an attentive, caring, musical and supportive partner but most of all he was fun to share the stage with. Fond memories. RIP dear Jonty.
Patricia in later years would win the London Critics Award for Performer of the Year for her Giselle—and she always credited the pedigree that Russell Kerr brought to his stagings of the classics (which he had learned from Nicholas Beriosov and Stansilaw Idzikowski in his years with Festival Ballet). Russell and Jon could both have followed stellar international careers but instead they opted to dance at home, settling for miniscule incomes maybe, but nonetheless finding deep satisfaction in making calibre productions right here. Jon danced both Petrouchka and the Charlatan across several seasons of Russell’s staging of Petrouchka, which was recognised as good as anywhere in the world. The sense of gratitude I have in writing about these past seven decades is not easy to paraphrase.
When it came time to step back from the highly demanding danseur noble roles, Jon had the dramatic and comedic strengths already in place to draw on for character roles. He gave a masterful reading to the title role in André Prokovsky’s Königsmark; his Royal Swan in Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana involved a stunning performance (a long solo he danced while suspended upside down on a pole). The roles created for him by Gray Veredon—the Entertainer in Ragtime Dance Company, the brooding settler in Tell Me A Tale, the ridiculous Dr Pantalone in A Servant of Two Masters were beyond description and compare. The madcap Widow Simone in La Fille Mal Gardee, the Rake in The Rake’s Progress, the grotesque Matron in Gary Harris Nutcracker, the swashbuckling Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s fabulous Peter Pan—it’s a very long list of indelible memories for which many are grateful.
They’re all my favourites, but a particular recurring memory is of Christopher Hampson’s stunning Romeo & Juliet. Jonty played both the Friar (a bit doddery but basically a morally flawed figure who should have known better) as well as the Duke of Verona, who strode into the corpse-filled square, trampling on Prokofiev as though the score was carpet, glared down at the Montagues then at the Capulets, wordlessly telling them to stop their futile feuding. Jonty made those dual roles into the centrifugal aspect of what R&J is all about and I’ve never forgotten it.
Some years back I took a friend’s child to a matinée of Petrouchka. Part way through, a fire alarm stopped the show and audience and dancers alike were tipped out of the Opera House. We sat in the sunshine of Pigeon Park opposite the theatre and waited, some half hour as I recall, for the all-clear. It so happened that Jonty was playing Charlatan fully costumed in his finery and made up to the max, he strolled across and sat down beside us, chatting quietly about this and that, the weather as it were … and letting us peer at the make-up on his hands, transformed into those of a 1,000-year-old charlatan. It was spooky and amazing, to the very cuticle, and I’ve never forgotten it—as we will never forget him.
Dani the librarian at Paekakariki, Jon’s home village just north of Wellington, told me yesterday that everyone there knew and loved Jonty. ‘We would vie to offer him a ride home from The Deli after he’d sat there for morning coffee and cake … we would purposely drive very slowly so as to get more stories out of him,’ she confessed. That was Jonty.
Jon Charles Trimmer, KNZM, MBE
born 18 September, 1939, Petone
died 26 October, 2023, Paekakariki
Image courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet
Sources: Coral Trimmer, Anne Rowse, Turid Revfeim, Patricia Rianne, Dani the Librarian.
Platinum is a dense, malleable, ductile, highly unreactive, precious, silverish-white transition metal. It has remarkable resistance to corrosion, even at high temperatures, and is therefore considered a noble metal. It is the traditional gift used to mark the 70 year anniversary of a relationship.
That makes Platinum a well-chosen title for this single performance in the Company’s home theatre of St. James, Wellington. The 70 year legacy of this intrepid little troupe of dancers reaches back to the legendary Poul Gnatt, and equally heroic Russell Kerr and Jon Trimmer, among many others. That mantle now falls on younger shoulders to maintain the morale, health and welfare of the dancers, as of us all, for the next 70 years.
The program comprised four group works, six pas de deux and two solos, each of which will have been somebody’s favourite.
The opening work, Te Ao Mārama, by Moss Patterson, on his whakapapa (lineage), seen in the Company’s recent Lightscapes program, maintains its integrity in a strong haka taparahi performance by the all-male cast. Later in the program an all-female cast performed Stand To Reason, Andrea Shermoly’s impressive tribute, as strong as any haka, to the Suffragette pioneers. Two male solos, Val Caniparoli’s Aria, a striking work to Handel, and Mark Baldwin’s Nobody Takes Me Seriously to the rhythmically lively song by Split Enz, were both stylishly performed.
There is real challenge for a pas de deux to capture the style and context of its full-length parent work, though the Don Quixote and Black Swan items did achieve this admirably. We saw Mayu Tanigaito in both, shining as a dancer of highest calibre, her fabulous technique always serving interpretation, never the other way around.
Sara Garbowski in the Act 2 excerpt from Giselle gave an exquisitely poetic performance with beautifully judged dynamics and phrasing of movement. This was from the celebrated production by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012, followed by the outstanding feature film directed by Toa Fraser—the best film the Company has ever produced of its repertoire. It’s worth noting that the recording here was by Orchestra Wellington conducted by Michael Lloyd, so the music’s calibre for dancing was guaranteed.
I will confess my concern at the poor amplification of the music accompaniment for several of the other items, however. Does the St. James Theatre need to invest in installation of a better quality sound system?
Unusually, none of the items carried a staging credit. The Bournonville works, Flower Festival in Genzano and La Sylphide, were challenged to capture the distinctive technique and vivacious style of the Danish heritage that this company inherited from Poul Gnatt all those decades ago.
The final work, for full company, was a premiere—Prismatic, choreographed by Shaun James Kelly, a tribute to the Company’s landmark work, Prismatic Variations, made by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt in 1959. There was an attractive energy, personality and enthusiasm from this cast, with a spirited final image of a dancer poised aloft high above all the group, suggesting airborne hope. It was in considerable contrast to the original choreography, five couples in a work of abstract, astringent and timeless classicism, echoing the geometric design of backcloth by Raymond Boyce.
The music—Brahm’s Variations on Haydn’s St Anthony Chorale—always seemed to flood the auditorium with joy and elation. Here in a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, you would expect no less, but again the theatre’s amplification seemed unable to offer the exhilaration we remember as an intrinsic part of the choreography.
It seemed a missed moment not to have brought on stage the incoming Artistic Director, Ty King-Wall, and the new Executive Director, Tobias Perkins, so we could welcome them—and also thank the outgoing Interim Artistic Director, David McAllister, for having stabilised the Company during its transition year.
Roses are the traditional flowers to mark 70 years and even one bouquet would have brought a sense of occasion and celebration to the stage full of talent. Instead, I came home and picked at midnight the single rose left in my windswept garden to place in a vase, as gratitude for seven decades of dancers who always gave and give their all.
Three talisman photos grace the printed program—Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Véjalis in Black Swan pas de deux; Patricia Rianne and Jon Trimmer in the 1978 production of The Sleeping Beauty; Russell Kerr and June Kerr in Prismatic Variations, 1960. Roses to them all.
David McAllister has through this year, 2023, been Acting Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet—to oversee the process of appointing a permanent Artistic Director, and to stabilise the management situation after both the previous directors, Executive and Artistic, had departed suddenly from their positions at Company.
It’s therefore been timely to be reading Ballet Confidential, to learn about McAllister’s own long-term career as a dancer, then his even longer term as Artistic Director, with the Australian Ballet. As well there is his earlier and more personal memoir, Soar, written with Amanda Dunn, both books published by Thames & Hudson.
McAllister’s writing is eminently accessible, conversational in tone, addressing the reader directly. He keeps a friendly, light, honest and humorous touch throughout—giving the welcome impression that he takes his art, but not himself, seriously. There is sincere respect for the dancers whose dedication and discipline is the seminal part of any company’s achievements—as well as insights into the management and governance responsibilities involved in directing that river of talent.
McAllister is out to debunk the reputation of ballet as an elite theatre art that entices only its afficionados, and he offers numerous encouragements to those who think ballet is strictly for the birds, who don’t attend performances because they ‘can’t hear the words’ to instead give it a go.
New Zealand readers who have followed the fortunes of our own national company across its 70 years cannot help but compare the scale of company size and resources for dance between the two countries. The Australian Ballet has become a flagship company for its country with a number of high-profile and successful international tours to its credit. Our own company has not toured internationally for a number of years (not a Covid-related phenomenon) but anyone who pays attention to the fortunes and woes of ballet companies worldwide will nonetheless know ours as a stalwart and determined 7 decades-long endeavour that has served drama, joy, vivacity, solace, style and beauty to its home audiences.
Ballet Confidential is not intended as a scholarly history of ballet—but it certainly contains much of interest as McAllister traces some of the seminal figures who have featured in Australia’s dancing life. (In this regard I’d have valued an Index for the book—since Soar does include a very good one, and has photos of very high quality on dedicated paper).
The reader can also recognise telling comparisons with New Zealand in other areas—particularly in the acknowledgment of First Peoples’ prominence in historical, cultural and social identity. There is also the issue of the resources given to sport across its many codes, with all the touring of teams and spectators alike, and the wealth of domestic and international media coverage beyond compare. Ever positive in his thinking, McAllister nonetheless points out the striking progress across the past few years in elite sports training, injury prevention and management that are such a near and present issue for sportsfolk and dancers alike, and that the relevant medical practitioners have been able to share their approaches to the challenges common to both callings.
It is wonderful to be reminded of AB’s major seasons of commissioned full-length choreographies. Graeme Murphy is the shining star in the firmament there—with his extraordinary Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, and the celebrated Swan Lake. (Lucky those of us who crossed the Tasman to see the latter—and top marks to those who made the feature film of Clara, so we have been able to see that too. It’s available for viewing on Vimeo through AB website).
David tells the story of being a young dancer in his first year at the Company, 1983, cast in Le Conservatoire, the Bournonville work staged by Poul Gnatt on Australian Ballet. (He had earlier staged it on the Australian Ballet School during the 1960s). David enjoys the symmetry and longevity of that association through being Interim AD of the company Gnatt founded here in 1953—’so Poul is still giving me the chance to do something worthwhile all these decades later’.
The announcement just last week of the new Artistic Director of RNZBallet, Ty King-Wall, a New Zealander with many years’ experience in Australian Ballet, is most welcome, and my heart skipped a beat of joy (is that what a cardiologist would say?) to read in King-Wall’s profile that he has danced lead roles in Bournonville choreographies over the years, so he understands the technique and style of our company’s original tradition.
There are other names to slip in here of the ballet links between our two countries and two companies—apart from van Praagh and Gnatt, and Borovanksy before them—that includes sharing Bryan Ashbridge, Jon Trimmer, Jacqui Trimmer, Harry Haythorne, Roy Wilson, Susan Elston, Fiona Tonkin, Graeme Murphy, Jane Casson, Martin James, Adrian Burnett, David McAllister, and now Ty King-Wall with his dancing wife, Amber Scott. These are ties that bind.
Jennifer Shennan, 17 September 2023
Featured image: David McAllister, 2019. Photo: Georges Antoni
For over two decades Martin James had a stellar career as a principal dancer with a range of ballet companies, including Royal New Zealand Ballet, English National Ballet, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Royal Danish Ballet. When he retired from performing in 2005, with a knighthood from Queen Margrethe II of Denmark for his contribution to Danish ballet, he took up teaching in Copenhagen and was appointed ballet master at Royal Danish Ballet. Teaching then became his main occupation and has continued to be so to the present day. Over the past 18 months or so I have, on occasions, had the pleasure of watching him teach in Canberra, a city he visits on weekends from his current home in Sydney. He now has a number of private pupils in Canberra.
Just recently I sat down with him to ask about his approach to teaching ballet. I was especially interested in the effect that the technique of August Bournonville might have had on his approach, given that Bournonville was a strong part of the early days of Royal New Zealand Ballet and, of course, is embedded in Royal Danish Ballet practices. His response included:
In the Royal Danish Ballet itself we did Bournonville classes. We didn’t do them every day but we did the curriculum. And of course Royal New Zealand Ballet was founded by Poul Gnatt who was a Dane. So I have been given quite a lot of knowledge of the Bournonville technique during my time with those two companies. Today, in most classes I’ll put in a bit of Bournonville, but it won’t be a Bournonville class. It will be integrated into a normal, classical situation. It’s often a challenge for students because Bournonville is hard. We forget that it’s actually a technique on its own. It’s fast and it’s often good to put it into a class because it reminds us of how slow we actually are.
Then we went on to talk about what exactly constitutes good teaching, a subject that is of intense interest to him.
I’m quite passionate about teaching. I think there’s a lot of confusion with the work of some teachers. As a dancer there was nothing worse for me than having teachers, and especially guest teachers, come into a studio with a full company present, pretending that they were the best teachers in the world and making it completely obvious that they were being complex and complicated. All the people who might have been doing shows in the evening thought, ‘Really! Just give us a basic class.’ That happened quite lot and it still happens today. You have to consider what teaching is about. We have to consider who we are working for—is it for ourselves, or for people we are hoping to make better dancers? My performing career is over. I had a good career and I retired on a good note. But I was still doing well and people would say to me sometimes, ‘Don’t you miss it?’ No! For me teaching is the next progression and I’m really, really basic when I teach so we can think about what technique is all about rather than be complicated in our minds. That can cause injuries. That’s my belief.
Martin had more to say about injuries and their management.
If we are moving towards becoming a professional, we have to understand what that means physically. As a professional you might be working seven days a week if you are travelling or touring. You never stop. So what I say to young people before they even get to that situation is that when you are very tired you can easily get injured because your mind goes in a different direction. Everything becomes uncoordinated. You can’t do that in a company. You need to concentrate on your technique even if that means moving slowly. You can’t mess it up. You need to understand what your body is doing.
The above is a very brief selection of what we talked about but it gives an idea of Martin’s approach and his passion for teaching. We might have to wait for a book to learn more about his extraordinary career!
The opening work, Serenade, to Tchaikovsky, is an abstraction of femininity, a favoured topic of Balanchine’s. It was created, in 1934, for students at the School of American Ballet that fed his company, so the memory of several productions at New Zealand School of Dance here across the decades, with the aura of fresh innocence of students at the threshold of their careers, has been special. The work has also been performed a number of times by RNZBallet since the 1970s.
My interest in watching Serenade is always to follow the dancers’ eye and facial expression, which styles the production and invites our response to it. Despite the uniformity of torso movement and port de bras required, some dancers in this cast smiled broadly and looked directly at the audience, whereas others looked into the far or the middle distance, raising the question as to what the performers are thinking about, and how Balanchine himself might originally have styled the work. The twirling pirouettes of tulle skirts always works its special poetry, but the use of token male dancers to lift a female dancer aloft in the closing scene has always seemed anachronistic. Having said that I do know that many balletomanes adore this work, even rate it as their favourite, and I respect that. All the dancers performed with aplomb, but Mayu Tanigaito found a way to invest her abstract movements with a spiritual quality that puts her in a class of her own.
(Harry Haythorne, artistic director here 1982–1993, told me that when a member of Metropolitan Ballet in UK he sustained an injury that put him out of performing for some time. He used the rest period to study Laban’s dance notation, and became fluent enough to score Balanchine’s Serenade, the first notator to do so. Although many versions of the score have since been made, Harry’s was the first, so it is poignant to visit the Dance Notation Bureau in New York and sight the initials HH at the footer of each page of his score.)
The second work, Te Ao Mārama. choreographed by Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, opened with the renowned Ariana Tikau playing pūtõrino, that most distinctive of taonga pūoro (Maori traditional instruments). I would have thought this sound would reach acoustically into every corner of the theatre, since these instruments were traditionally played in open air. I must confess that amplification of it, plus the electric guitar and amplification from Shayne Carter on the opposite side of the stage, made for challenging acoustic contrast. The dance itself explored the theme of moving from Te Kore, the darkness, as though searching for fragments of what would in time grow into haka, traditional dance, into the world of light, Te Ao Mārama. This is an interesting notion, for a choreographer to make a dance about dancing, and the final haka was certainly performed with vigour and intent by the all-male cast. I found various lighting effects, including bright white beams that swept into the audience’s eyes several times, as though to dazzle them, both unpleasant and distracting.
I did welcome the reminders of various incorporations of Maori dance influence into the repertoire of RNZB over their seven decades. Poul Gnatt in 1953 choreographed Satan’s Wedding, which a reviewer at the time (DJCM in The Auckland Star) noted reminded him of the power of haka, which was quite a thrill for Poul to hear. In 1990s Matz Skoog’s and Sue Paterson’s project that combined RNZB with Split Enz music, and Te Matārae ī Orehu on the same program, Ihi FreNZy, made very strong impression—especially when, by way of epilogue, both companies of dancers combined in a rousing haka. By the time that tour ended, Shannon Dawson, one of the strongest character dancers the Company has ever known, seemed to have changed his ethnicity. I doubt if another pākehā has ever performed haka so convincingly. My standout memory though, across all the years, is from Gray Veredon’s Tell me a Tale, set in mid 19th century, in which Warren Douglas led a haka of rage against the young colonial boy (played by Kim Broad), his father (played by Jon Trimmer) and mother (played by Kerry-Anne Gilberd). The boy had dared to fall in love with (Warren’s) sister and that provoked a taparahi never to be forgotten. We could all now haka in rage and sorrow that Warren was taken so young, and we lost a phenomenal dance talent when he lost his life.
The third work, Requiem for a Rose, is choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, to Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. There is a depth, beauty and mystery in this piece that resonates, not only as a flower of romance, but with what the rose has meant as symbol of life and love, to different peoples and cultures in history, across stories, poems and paintings—originally from Persia, China, India, South America, and then worldwide. Twelve dancers, male and female, wear rich red circular skirts that seem almost fragrant when illuminated by Jon Buswell’s outstanding lighting design. They dance a series of four duets and a quartet, all very well cast, and beautifully set to the music. The 13th dancer, Kirby Selchow, wearing the barest of leotards and no skirt, carrying a red rose in her mouth throughout, powerfully sustains the essence and mystery at the heart of this enigmatic and beautiful work.
The fourth work, Logos, choreographed by Alice Topp, is to a very effective commissioned score by Ludovico Einaudi. The opening duet, by Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout—and the closing duet, by Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Matthew Slattery, are equally exquisite though in very different ways. (In later solo sections Teachout seemed to have found an astonishing quality of torso movement that evokes the likes of choreography we have seen from Douglas Wright dancers—which made him a standout in a cast of already strong dancers.) There are a number of quotations oddly laid out in the program notes, but I guess that matters not as simply following and absorbing the dance as it progresses from a dark and troubled beginning to a clearer lighter place was all the guidance we needed. Topp and Buswell collaborated brilliantly in the design for this work. Its apotheosis is a theatrical coup, and one that will stay with all who see it, even as it suggests what some might see as a disturbing harbinger for the planet. A powerful work of theatre with much to admire.
There is an exhibition in the theatre foyer to mark this as the 70th year of the Company. There are many wonderful images that remind us of a rich and varied repertoire across the decades. A National Film Unit documentary, with footage from 1959–1962 performances, is screening within the exhibition, and is a treasure. My favourite vignette in this film has always been of Jacqui Oswald Trimmer dancing in Do-Wack-a-Do, composed by the legendary Dorothea Franchi. Jacqui would have won a role in The Great Gatsby if she had used this as her audition piece. Gloria Young, Sara Neil, Anne Rowse, Patricia Rianne, Terence James, Carol Draper, Christine Smith, Valerie Whyman, Kirsten Ralov and Fredbjörn Björnsson all make striking cameo appearances in the film, and the alumnae gathering for celebrations will have great fun in following them all.
There is much to savour in the storyboards, but one statement cannot go unchallenged. Friends of the New Zealand Ballet was formed by Poul Gnatt in 1953 (not some decades later as stated). Without those subs from Friends in the 1950s, this company would simply not have made it round the country. Poul used to drive the truck with scenery and costumes from town to town to town—pick up every hitch-hiker he spied, and by the time the hikers climbed down from the truck at the end of the ride they were subscribed members of Friends of the Ballet. Poul used the money to buy petrol to drive the truck to the next town. It’s an important story—because when Poul a decade later returned to his native Denmark he taught colleagues at Royal Danish Ballet that they too should set up a Friends—which they named Ballet Appreciation Club. It has survived to this day with a staggering number of audience education and outreach activities. If they remember that Poul showed them how a Friends outfit can work, we should surely remember that too.
Marc Taddei, music director of Orchestra Wellington (OW), has made the band a major fixture of Wellington’s music scene. A heartily large number of subscribers means there is always a capacity audience in place and the Michael Fowler Centre is no small venue.
Typically, Taddei chooses a theme to connect the different works on any given programme. A recent one, Elemental Forces, featured the mighty Scythian Suite by Prokofiev. It was a staggering experience to hear the enlarged orchestra play the work. I was quite shocked to learn from the program note that Diaghilev had commissioned the score from Prokofiev just the year following Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, but then declined it even before the composition was finished. (No wonder Prokofiev was sometimes seen leaving Diaghilev’s office in tears). It was 1915, orchestral players were in short supply, mostly being away in the trenches, so the work was never performed and I’m not aware of any subsequent choreography being set to the music. (Diaghilev must have been out of his mind. The final movement of the suite summons a mighty sunrise—probably the most extraordinary sight any human has ever witnessed, even if we do tend to take it for granted, as in ‘the sun will rise again tomorrow’. The dancers would only have needed to start in a crouched position in the dark and to unfold to a standing position into the light, with the slowest motion humanly imaginable. Perhaps Sankai Juku could have managed that? or Cloudgate?
OW’s most recent programme, Myth & Ritual, opened with Richard Strauss’ Salome: Dance of the seven veils. Nobody danced to it—nobody needed to, the music said it all. Then a powerful work for orchestra and saxophone, Zahara, by John Psathas. The soloist, Valentine Michaud, wore a dress (creation might be a better word) that Léon Bakst would have been proud to design.
Then followed Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin in which the orchestra joined forces with Orpheus Choir and with Ballet Collective Aotearoa (BCA). The Michael Fowler Centre may be a large venue but by the time an enlarged orchestra and sizeable choir are in place, there’s not a lot of room left for dancing. It was impressively resourceful then for BCA’s Turid Revfeim, artistic director, and Tabitha Dombroski, choreographic director, to place the cast of six dancers in the high choir stalls, a wide but extremely narrow space, for their playing out of the myth and ritual of this extraordinary work.
Bartok knew what he was doing, even if not everyone has seen what he could see. Note the date of composition, 1918. Whether overt or not, World War One has to be in the subtext of anything produced in Europe at that time. Despite that provenance, the work was received as a scandal and banned on moral grounds but that has not prevented its longevity as a score, even if these 105 years later it can still challenge audiences.
Four street rogues compel a woman to act as seductive target to wealthy passers-by who will then be robbed and beaten to death. One such character emerges, the Miraculous Mandarin, who dies several times, but returns to life. That role was compellingly played by Björn Aslund who faced the orchestra in defiance of the inevitable. The harlot, Mimi, was played with aplomb by Alina Kulikova, and the rough rogues—Alisha Wathen, Zoe White, Callum Phipps and James Burchell—were extraordinarily agile in their clambering through rails and seats. No need to design a set for this—it was there in the architecture of the place.
The dancers are named here because, inexplicably, they were not acknowledged in the printed program on the night— but the imagery they created will linger long in the memory.
Other than that omission, this was a remarkable night at the orchestra that became a night at the theatre. A graphic exhibition in the foyer of the life and work of Bela Bartok, supplied by the Hungarian Embassy, was an added and much appreciated feature.
There is further resonance for those who follow ballet history here that Poul Gnatt, founder of New Zealand Ballet, choreographed Miraculous Mandarin for the national ballet company in the Philippines that he helped to found in 1970s. And in mid 90s, the then artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ashley Killar, choreographed Dark Waves to Bartok’s Music for strings, celeste and percussion. He based the ballet on a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, and gave to Jon Trimmer one of his finest roles. The work was toured to America (where it impressed the New York critics) though was never performed publicly in New Zealand. (I’d got lucky and seen a studio rehearsal before the company went on tour. They returned to find various arts agencies were trying to close the company down. Triumph to those who said No to that).
There are still a number of dancers from the original cast easily to be located, who would willingly coach a new cast. Killar is still active in the ballet world and lives in Sydney, so there’s not a lot to stop the work being staged again. It’s redolent with New Zealand provenance.
Don’t we need more than one Day?—how about a Week? New Zealand Music gets a Month. Let’s make it a Year for Dance…one day at a time. by Jennifer Shennan
How was your International Dance Week? For me…
Day One—Saturday 29 April I’m in Christchurch to see Woyzeck (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on On Dancing)—a thrill to watch actors who move in such focussed ways, they could be dancers. Director Peter Falkenberg tells me later he works with Laban movement concepts for each actor’s character before they even get to the script. Aha, so that’s why these actors can dance.
That same day I meet up with three former students from New Zealand School of Dance — 1990s but I remember each of them very clearly, for different reasons, these three decades later. It’s heartening to hear their memories, and to learn about the enterprising ways they have since carved dance-related careers for themselves (dance teachers or Pilates tutors— the world needs more of both, so bravo)—but it breaks my heart to learn they are still carrying student loan debts of up to $60,000 from their student days! They don’t seem as fazed by the facts or the dollars as I am on their behalf, but I know I would feel crippled and unable to sleep, let alone work, let alone dance, if I was shouldering such a debt. It’s madness and has negative effects in several directions—e.g. a further colleague of theirs won’t come back to New Zealand on account of her loan, so grandparents don’t meet their grandchildren … another, with a young family, is back here but can’t get a mortgage to buy a house … another won’t take a job here since that would mean having to pay back the loan. Which political cynic choreographed this chaos of educational economics, this dance of death? [Of course we well remember which Minister of Education introduced the scheme, we just don’t want to speak his name. Australia manages a much better and fairer system apparently].
Those former students and I plan to set up a dance club around the Youth Centre that is soon to open in Christchurch. We’ll be offering 500 year old break dancing (that’s galliards to you—along with some pavans and brawls). All we know at this stage is that it will be free for participants and there will be live music. We can do this. Not all the youngsters will want to join in, but some of them will.
Day Two—Sunday 30 April I spend the day in Christchurch with Ian Lochhead, dance writer and historian, and a trustee of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts. We’re discussing suitable topics for next year’s RKL and thought we’d like to mark RNZBallet’s 70th anniversary in some meaningful way. We plan to canvas attendees widely, inviting their response to the question, ‘Which is your single standout memory of a production across the 70 years or so you’ve been watching this company? The work you recall as suiting the company uniquely and memorably?’ We’ll be intrigued to learn if our initial consensus as to which work is chosen will continue to find favour. The RKL will be a Sunday in late February 2024.
Day Three—Monday 1 May— M’Aidez. I walk on the grass and remember May Day in history … ‘the first day of May, long celebrated with various festivities, as the crowning of the May queen, dancing around the Maypole, and, in recent years, often marked by labour parades and political demonstrations.’ There’s an interesting entry on Alastair Macaulay’s website about the maypole in Black dance history. On Youtube in Ashton’s La Fille malGardée a maypole is sweet and colourful but doesn’t have the urgency that outdoor rituals can offer, and seems to taper off rather than triumph at the cadence. (The late Annette Golding, a dance educator at Wellington Teachers’ College, used to mount a very spirited Maypole on her students back in the day). I spend several hours reading the titles on the spines of Ian’s very considerable dance library. I appreciate an update on the May Day gala dance event being organised by Maryanne Meachen for a performance in Palmerston North.
Day Four—Tuesday 2 May I stay with John Cousins, composer friend, and Colleen Anstey, dancer friend, both of them tango milongueros. They had travelled to Buenos Aires for a tango festivaI a few years back but found themselves undone to learn the stories of Argentinian struggles, sufferings, deaths and disappearances. I listen to John’s very moving composition Tristeza de Corrientes with accompanying images, on the subject, and remember how no dance is isolated from the context of its community.
Day Five—Wednesday 3 May I return to Wellington, to view a filmed excerpt from Mary-Jane O’Reilly’s Giselle, which she has re-named What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? I sincerely hope MJ finds funding to complete the full-length theatre version, as this is a striking and spiky wonderful contemporary re-choreographing of a classic work that departs from, yet pays respect to, the original.
Day Six—Thursday 4 May I teach a Baroque dance lesson to a new and fired student who keeps us going at an impressive pace, and doesn’t mind appreciators watching our work. Robert Oliver, the viol player who accompanies us, is a joy to collaborate with.
I then go to Hunters & Collectors gallery for the opening of the exhibition, geist, photographs of Douglas Wright, by Tessa Ayling-Guhl, taken in 2015, but never before exhibited. They are astonishing images of this visionary dance force. Even though Douglas died in 2018, the memory of him is indelible for many. A dance performance by Björn Aslund, with Robert Oliver, is being prepared to close the exhibition.
I then go to St. James Theatre for a performance of Romeo & Juliet by Royal New Zealand Ballet, choreography by Andrea Shermoly. The role of Juliet is danced by Mayu Tanigaito who gives a beautifully tuned performance … but the real hero of the night is the conductor of New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Hamish McKeich, who leads the orchestra through the mighty and much-loved Prokofiev score, as much drama in the music as ever on stage. Not two years ago Hamish suffered a debilitating stroke leaving him with one arm and one leg seriously affected. This annoyed him as there is much he still wants to do. Hamish conducts this mighty music using just one arm and takes his curtain call from side, not centre stage as the walking stick might slow things down. If that’s not courage then nothing is.
I am reminded of the Auckland-based Touch Compass mixed-ability dance company, founded and led for years by the gifted and intrepid Catherine Chappell. As one performance ended, curtain calls over, audience readying to leave, curtain still up on an empty stage, Catherine’s voice over, ‘Would the dancers go back and help clear the stage of the various props and set please’ … a voice replies, ‘Oh but I’ve only got one arm. ..’ Catherine replies, ’Then that’s the one to use, isn’t it.’ Indeed it is.
Day Seven—Friday 5 May I attend the funeral of the much-loved Margaret Nielsen, pianist and champion of New Zealand composers’ work. Margaret died close to 90, ‘ready to go now as I’ve selected all the music I want at my funeral.’ Many beautiful songs later, came the excerpt from her colleague David Farquhar’s Ring Around the Moon suite—composed as incidental music for a play in 1953—the year of the Queen’s coronation, the ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary, and the founding of New Zealand Ballet by Poul Gnatt. Harry Haythorne used this music to stage the 30th Anniversary Gala—in 1983—everyone from the Company and the School onstage, dressed in swirling blue and dancing every spirited beat. Poul entered last and strode down centre stage, purposefully stepping on the off-beat. When Edmund Hillary was asked what is the essential attribute of a leader, he replied, ‘Well, involve everyone in the team, but the Leader has to have a Plan B.’ Poul always had a Plan B.
Margaret had chosen the Waltz and the Tango from Farquhar’s music. I ask myself—What else is there?
I come home to watch the choreography of the royal procession of the Coronation, and was especially impressed by the troupe of musicians mounted on horseback, playing their instruments and guiding the horses with their ankles and heels. Look, no hands! And there were Black gospel singers who (nearly) danced inside Westminster Abbey. It’s been a while since anyone danced in that Abbey I think.
Every day is Dance Day. That was my Dance Week. How about yours?
Jennifer Shennan, 8 May 2023
Featured image: Poster for Tessa Ayling-Guhl’s exhibition of her photographs of Douglas Wright, 2023. Image courtesy of Tessa Ayling-Guhl
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
Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues is a program of three separate works each set
to Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fuge, opus
133. Any dance can offer access into its music. Might three distinct
choreographies set to the same music enhance that experience threefold?
Originally composed for string quartet this
is dense and passionate music. Here, to different recordings, are set the works
of choreographers Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin.
Would Beethoven have accepted them all? withheld copyright? encouraged the
endeavour? been flattered? had preferences, maybe even a favourite? How about
you? Is there any purpose to rhetorical questions? (Of course there is. I ask
them all the time and like the fact that they invite but don’t insist on
Childs’ dance was calm, analytical (she had opted for an orchestral version with its larger merged sound, very different from the distinct instrumental voices in the quartet used by the other two choreographers). Here the music score moved the dancers, six couples, through many combinations and permutations, torsos and limbs, verticals and diagonals, within the theme and variations, but chose not to transition the performers into a human, social, dramatic or poetic space. They danced to us.
(It made me long to see a revival of the
similarly abstract yet highly resonant Prismatic
Variations, choreographed by Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr, from our own national ballet company
In real contrast, De Keersmaeker’s choreography was energized by its dancers, six men and two women, excited and committed performers, occasionally stepping back for a breather or to adjust their clothing—then up and at it again, full tilt, every move delivered with clarity and light. They danced for us.
Marin’s piece opened to music only, in the dark. What a powerful reminder of her extraordinary MayB, brought to an earlier festival here. That work distilled her encounters with Samuel Beckett and all the characters in all his plays—opening with a long strain of Schubert played in the pitch dark. (‘I’ve forgotten half my life, but I still remember this’—that’s Leonard Cohen in posthumous song lyrics). Then came the dancers, a quartet of women in dark red dresses, one dancer per instrument, absorbed into Beethoven’s emotion. They were occasionally airborne in galvanised elevation but only as attempt to escape, not to celebrate. At one point they moved forward and sat at the front of the stage, as if to explain something. They danced inside us.
The clean, the engaged, the deep? the
morning, the evening, the night? air, water, earth? cerebral, social, wild?
skin, flesh and blood? reveal, illuminate, absorb? Which would you remember the
longest? Which would you prefer? You can of course say yes to everything if you
don’t want to judge or to choose.
For this Festival season the artistic
director invited three artists to take a week each in a lightly defined
curatorial role, to guide us in anticipating and accessing their take on the
forthcoming program highlights.
I accepted this as a personal invitation to curate my own Festival (which we all do to some degree anyway, depending on family responsibilities and other constraints)—so my curated version of Trois Grandes Fugues opens with New Zealand String Quartet sitting centre-stage playing the Beethoven through, first as music alone. (It’s in their repertoire, actually now in their dna, and they performed it here in recital only a few weeks ago. The players are second to none in the world so how ironic to have been sitting beside them in the audience). After all, musicians in a string quartet move in a kind of miniature ballet all their own—sustaining urgent eye contact, exchanging taut gestural signals and cues among themselves, not sending communication just one way towards a conductor who is controlling an orchestral ensemble. I’d have asked them to play it again for each of the three choreographies. Then as a sublime and anchoring epilogue, we’d have sat, audience and musicians, in total pitch darkness, while they played it all again a fifth and final time. That way we’d have come to know the music in live renditions (I don’t believe audiences listen with care to recordings …) and the middle slow movement, searching among sadness for some hope, might have become ours to have and to hold forever