30 July 2022. Talbot Theatre, Thomas Dixon Centre, Brisbane
Bespoke for 2022 comprised Tethered by Petros Treklis, Biography by Stephanie Lake and A Rhapsody in Time by Greg Horsman. All three had lighting by Cameron Goerg and costumes by Zoe Griffiths. Choreographically it was a highly diverse program and continues Queensland Ballet’s annual, and admirable, program of promoting new choreography.
Treklis’ work, danced to a score by James Brown, left me somewhat cold I have to say. Treklis says in program notes that his work explores ‘the idea of the unknown and our other selves’. For me it focused on darkness with a bit of light thrown in for good measure. The cast of fifteen was mostly dressed in dark grey garb, a kind of boiler suit but with (I think) some kind of monster-style head covering—it was hard to see in the darkness just exactly what comprised the costume. Those dressed this way were programmed as Shadows. Then there were two figures, a Man and a Woman, who at times interacted with the main group of Shadows. They were dressed in costumes that were light coloured, and much less all-encompassing. Choreographically the Shadows had mostly group poses and movements to perform whereas the Man and the Woman had more freedom. But I’m not sure what was the outcome of the relationship between the light and the dark. The work was danced strongly by Queensland Ballet’s Jette Parker Young Artists who deserve credit for making Tethered watchable.
Stephanie Lake’s Biography sat at the other end of the spectrum really. Danced to a mixture of music from J. S. Bach to Robin Fox, it was lighter and brighter, sometimes even amusing. Lake describes it as ‘the subterranean forces that shape out lives’ and choreographically the work provided us with some fascinating structures—some were strongly and geometrically grouped, others less so. The dancers showed off the different ‘forces’ with more than a spark of individuality. I have to say though that it reminded me rather too much of Alexander Ekman’s work. Cacti comes immediately to mind. But still it was entertaining in an especially quirky way..
The absolute standout work was the closing item, Greg Horsman’s A Rhapsody in Motion danced to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43. It began with a reference (perhaps) to Harald Landers’ Etudes with the dancers performing various movements at the barre—or a series of barres (they were quite short in length) spread out across the stage. But it was just a passing reference as Horsman used the barres as a prop for the dancers who moved them, slid under them and used them in a variety of ways. Once the barres were taken away, leaving an empty performing space, we saw some beautifully complex, vibrant and diversely structured classical choreography, stunningly performed (as ever) by the artists of Queensland Ballet.
While it is hard to single out any one dancer, I was completely bowled over by the exceptional performance at the matinee I attended from Laura Tosar, who was recently promoted to soloist and was partnered on this occasion by David Power. Tosar has such a beautifully fluid body and technically could scarcely be faulted. But what was just brilliant was the way she was able to express her pleasure at performing. Yes, there was a smile on her face, but it was not a forced smile, just an expression of emotion and pleasure at being onstage, and that expression coursed through her whole body. I am so looking forward to seeing her perform again.
This triple bill was a mixed bag and it is always a thrill to watch Queensland Ballet take on the challenges that Bespoke offers. A program of works from Treklis, Lake and Horsman provides a panoply of challenges
Canberra stalwart Liz Lea is taking her much acclaimed show, RED, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next month. It opens on 16 August at Dance Base and is being promoted in Edinburgh in the following terms:
Red is fearless, Red is fierce, Red is powerful—a one-woman dance theatre work with a hint of fun and fabulousness. You will laugh, you’ll cry, you won’t forget. A poignant, riotous, glamorous and ultimately triumphant exploration of one woman’s story—an exquisite exploration of female endurance. Described as unforgettable, shattering and hilarious, Red is a soul-baring retelling of one woman’s journey through illness and recovery with an eye to the future. Honest, face-to-face dialogue with the audience, balanced with beautifully framed film and movement.
Read my review of RED from its premiere performance in March 2018 at this link.
United Ukrainian Ballet
The United Ukrainian Ballet is coming to Australia in October. It will present a production of Swan Lake in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide on the dates and at the venues listed below.
Venue: Plenary MCEC, Melbourne Date: 20-23 Oct 2022
Venue: Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC, Sydney Date: 28-30 Oct 2022
Venue: Adelaide Festival Theatre, Adelaide Date: 10-13 Nov 2022
The company is made up of around 60 dancers who have escaped the war in Ukraine and who are living and rehearsing together in the Netherlands. Dancers come from various companies including National Opera of Ukraine, Kharkiv Opera Theatre and Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre. The company is led by former prima ballerina of Dutch National Ballet, Inge de Yongh. Prior to bringing Swan Lake to Australia the company will perform in the Netherlands and London bringing to the stage a new version of Giselle by Alexei Ratmansky.
Queensland Ballet’s Talbot Theatre
Brisbane’s Thomas Dixon Centre, Queensland Ballet’s home since the 1990s, has been beautifully redeveloped and now contains a small theatre, the Talbot Theatre, where very recently I watched a performance of Bespoke (of which more later). The theatre is a real gem. It has a seating capacity of 351 and is perfect for showings of new choreography, such as Bespoke.. But its best feature is its sightlines. I was sitting on the very end of a row but had a clear view of every part of the stage. Exceptional design I think.
10 June 2022. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Li Cunxin has been at the helm of Queensland Ballet for close to ten years and the company’s latest production, an absolutely mind-blowing triple bill called Li’s Choice, is in celebration of those ten years of masterful leadership on Li’s part.
The program opened with Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto, a work for six dancers performed to a violin concerto by Philip Glass. I saw this work in 2017 and, while I loved parts of it, especially what I called the ‘technical fireworks’ of the choreography for the third movement, it left me uninspired in other parts. Not this time. The opening moments were danced by all six dancers and the choreography was filled with beautifully rehearsed classical partnering for the three couples. From there the choreography unfolded to show the dancers in different groupings with some solo sections before it reached the so-called (by me) fireworks. Mia Heathcote caught my eye, as she usually does, in this case for her exceptional ability to add that tiny extra bit of expression (both facial and in the body) that makes her work stand out. But every dancer showed an inspired approach to Horsman’s choreography. They just looked spectacular, all of them.
Costuming by Georg Wu was, on the surface, quite simple—a black leotard-style garment for men and women with a more masculine look to the lower section for the men. But the detailing was quite beautiful—a bit of sparkle here, a cut-out section there, and with opaque sections contrasting with more translucent areas. All together Glass Concerto was a terrific opener.
The middle work was Natalie Weir’s very moving We who are left, which I also saw earlier from Queensland Ballet.* I was just as moved this time by a work that I think is a masterpiece from Weir. On the surface, We who are left is a simple story about five men who leave for a war zone, their activities in the war zone, the fate of the women they leave behind, and the return of one of the five men. But the emotion that Weir injects into the choreography takes the work to a truly inspiring level. This time I was especially taken by the choreography for the men when at war. While this section began in somewhat of a militaristic style, as the war continued the choreography became more fractured, more twisted, more death-like.
But still the highlight for me was the section ‘She who was left’, danced on this occasion by Lucy Green. The woman is joined by the man (Patricio Revé) who left her to go to war. He was one of those killed and returns in spirit to the woman. The pas de deux between them is just a brilliant piece of choreography. They dance together but never touch, although the emotional connection, the memory, is there in full. And what a different feel this pas de deux has from another in the same work, ‘Memories of love’, when a physical connection between Lina Kim and Vito Bernasconi is at the heart of the pas de deux
We who are left is complemented by a stunning lighting design by David Walters (revived by Cameron Georg), It delivers an emotional setting from beginning to end.
The closing work was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, performed to music from Scott Joplin and other ragtime-style composers, with the chamber orchestra, Camerata, playing on stage. Nigel Gaynor conducted and was pianist for the orchestra.
Elite Syncopations is a series of routines featuring characters in a dance hall of some kind. There is not a storyline as such but the characters flirt amongst each other and vie for attention from others in the dance hall. Stand-out performances came from Neneka Yoshida, in a fabulous white costume with strategically placed red stars (costume design by Ian Spurling); Mali Comlecki as a suave character who seemed to want to put himself above everyone else; Luke Dimattina, who played a guy somewhat on the outskirts of the group but who wanted to be part of it; and Victor Estévez whose character seemed to be in competition somewhat with that of Comlecki.
Elite Syncopations gave everyone in the cast a chance to let their hair down and clown around a bit. The funny thing was that, having seen this work performed by the Royal Ballet, on whom it was originally made by MacMillan in 1974, I thought Queensland Ballet brought a new insight to the work. Somehow it seemed quite ‘Ocker’ in comparison the the Royal version! I loved it.
Apart from the breathtaking performances across the board, what really struck me was that this triple bill showed us what dance can transmit to an audience. We had a peek at the vocabulary of classical ballet and the beautiful athleticism and lyricism that dancers trained in the style can achieve, we saw how dance can transmit hugely emotional feelings about life and its many and varied aspects, and we were treated to the notion that dance is fun, joyous and often hilarious. While each of the three works was focused largely on one of these three ideas, there were traces of all in each.
The evening curtain call rightly included Li and the presentation to him of a huge bouquet of red roses. Justly deserved! Li’s Choice was an absolute cracker of a triple bill and shows Li as a great director. It also shows the Queensland Ballet staff as brilliant collaborators and teachers and the company itself as one of the best, perhaps even the best, we have in this country.
My talk for Melbourne’s Johnston Collection, Kristian Fredrikson. Theatre Designer Extraordinaire, will finally take place on 22 June 2022 just one year later than scheduled. No need, I am sure, to give a reason for its earlier cancellation. I am very much looking forward to presenting this talk, which will include short extracts from some of the film productions for which Fredrikson created designs, including Undercover, which tells the story of the founding of the Berlei undergarment brand.
The Australian Ballet has announced a number of changes to its performing and administrative team. In May, at the end of the company’s Sydney season, ten dancers were promoted:
Jill Ogai from Soloist to Senior Artist Nathan Brook from Soloist to Senior Artist Imogen Chapman Soloist to Senior Artist Rina Nemoto from Soloist to Senior Artist Lucien Xu from Coryphée to Soloist Mason Lovegrove from Coryphée to Soloist Luke Marchant from Coryphée to Soloist Katherine Sonnekus from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée Aya Watanabe from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée George-Murray Nightingale from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
In administrative news, the chairman of the board of the Australian Ballet has announced that Libby Christie, the company’s Executive Director, will step down from the position at the end of 2022, after a tenure of close to ten years.
But the Australian Ballet will also face a difficult time in 2024 when the State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, where the Australian Ballet performs over several months, and which it regards really as its home, will close for three years as part of the redevelopment of the arts precinct. Apparently David Hallberg is busy trying to find an alternative theatre in Melbourne. But then the company faced similar difficulties a few years ago in Sydney when the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House was unavailable as it too went through renovations. It was perhaps less than three years of closure in Sydney but the company survived then and I’m sure it will this time too.
And from Queensland Ballet
Queensland Ballet’s Jette Parker Young Artists, along with artistic director Li Cunxin, a group of dancers from the main company, and Christian Tátchev from Queensland Ballet Academy, will head to London any day now. The dancers will perform in the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House from 4-6 June as part of a cultural exchange between Australia and the United Kingdom. They will be taking an exciting program of three works under the title of Southern Lights. Those three works are Perfect Strangers by Jack Lister, associate choreographer with Queensland Ballet and a dancer with Australasian Dance Collective; Fallen by Natalie Weir, Queensland Ballet’s resident choreographer; and Appearance of Colourby Loughlan Prior, resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet.
In addition to the performances, Li will be joined by Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare and dancer Leanne Benjamin for an ‘In Conversation’ session, and Tátchev will conduct open classes for dancers from the Royal Ballet School
Not forgetting New Zealand
The Royal New Zealand Ballet has also announced a retirement. Katherine and Joseph Skelton will give their last performance with the company in June. It has been a while since I saw Royal New Zealand Ballet perform live but I have especially strong memories of Joseph Skelton dancing the peasant pas de deux with Bronte Kelly in Giselle in 2016. Both dancers are mentioned in various posts on this website. See Katherine Skelton and Joseph Skelton.
RNZB is filming the pair in the pas de deux from Giselle Act II and the film will be made available on RNZB’s Facebook page on 1 June.
Street names in Whitlam (a new-ish Canberra suburb)
There has been discussion at various times about naming streets in Canberra suburbs after people who are thought to be distinguished Australians. There was quite recently discussion about abandoning the process completely with complaints being made that the process was not an inclusive one, and that in particular men outnumbered women (along with several other issues). Well not so long ago I joined Julie Dyson and Lauren Honcope in helping the ACT Government select names of those connected with dance to be used as street names in the new-ish suburb of Whitlam. The suburb was named after former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the decision was to name the streets after figures who had been prominent in the arts (given Whitlam’s strong support of the arts). I looked back at what was eventually chosen (and it was for an initial stage of development of the suburb), and its seems to me that the argument that diversity was lacking is not correct (at least not in this case). The names selected for this stage included men, women, First Nations people, and people known to belong to the LGBTI… community. Some have a lovely ring to them too—Keith Bain Crest, Laurel Martyn View, Arkwookerum Street for example. I’m looking forward to what the next stage will bring.
Michelle Potter, 31 May 2022
Featured image: Still from Undercover, Palm Beach Pictures, 1982
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?
Queensland Ballet has today announced that artistic director Li Cunxin has renewed his contract for a further three years from 2022. This is excellent news as Li’s directorship has been one of the great success stories of dance in Australia. Queensland Ballet is now an exceptional company with an exciting repertoire and, in addition, the company has expanded its reach beyond Brisbane, and has now also developed a first class training academy at Kelvin Grove State College.
Watching Li take a rehearsal gives a clear picture of his commitment to his role and his unquenchable thirst to achieve only the best. He has a strong team of teaching and administrative staff behind him, a resident choreographer in Natalie Weir, with Jack Lister as associate choreographer, and an outstanding musical director in Nigel Gaynor. It’s a company with everything to offer.
This announcement came at the same time as Queensland Ballet announced its 2022 season. Two programs, The Sleeping Beauty and a double bill of Rooster and B-Sides, will be performed on the Gold Coast where Queensland Ballet has set up a new home. In Brisbane four programs will be performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC)—Giselle in April (following a regional tour in March); a triple bill entitled Li’s Choice in June; Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon in September/October; and The Nutcracker in December. The company will also perform at the Thomas Dixon Centre with Peter and the Wolf slated for June/July; Bespoke, the annual program of new choreography, for July; and Queensland Ballet Academy Gala for August. Full details of the season are set out in this link. Information about three performances of Manon featuring Li and Mary Li can also be found there!
If I had to choose just one program to see in 2022 it would be Li’s Choice. Natalie’s Weir’s work We who are left is a moving, beautifully structured and choreographed work first seen in 2016, which I have wanted to see again for a while. It will share the program with Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto and Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations. A decidedly mixed triple bill. Read my review of We who are left at this link.
Let’s hope that in 2022 the Queensland Government will allow those of us who live outside that state (and who have been double-vaccinated and are happy to wear masks and engage in social distancing etc, etc) to enter Queensland to see a show or two.
The latest round of the Australian Government’s RISE (Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand) funding project has revealed two interesting initiatives:
FORM Dance Projects, located in Western Sydney, has received $278,000 to assist with their 2022 commissioning activities. Part of their funding allocation will go to commissioning Meryl Tankard and composer Elena Kats Chernin to create a new work for eventual showing at the Sydney Festival. Tankard and Kats Chernin have enjoyed very successful collaborative endeavours to date, with perhaps the most interesting being Wild Swans created in 2003 on dancers of the Australian Ballet and based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name.
In another dance initiative, GWB Entertainment, with operations in the UK and Australia, has received $948,865 to collaborate with the Australian Ballet on a touring production of An American in Paris. GWB Entertainment was responsible for the fabulous production of West Side Story, which was seen in New Zealand and several Australian cities (even Canberra!!) not so long ago. As for An American in Paris, I am assuming it is the recent production adapted for the stage by Christopher Wheeldon. Time will tell.
But moving beyond government funding projects, the irrepressible and forever active Li Cunxin has announced that Queensland Ballet will establish a ‘second home’ on the Gold Coast. In 2022, in conjunction with HOTA (Home of the Arts), a Gold Coast arts organisation, Queensland Ballet will perform The Sleeping Beauty and Rooster/B-Sides, exclusively on the Gold Coast. The company is now busy planning its 2023 Gold Coast season.
But in addition, Queensland Ballet, with philanthropic support from Roy and Nola Thompson, has purchased land at Yatala on the Gold Coast to build a new production centre. The centre will eventually house Queensland Ballet’s costumes, sets and props in archivally sound conditions.
Queensland Ballet continues to broaden its horizons.
Let’s hope 2022 allows us more freedom to see these new initiatives for ourselves.
Houston Ballet has, as a result of concerns and protests from various groups, removed its production of La Bayadère from its current season. The ballet looks back to the nineteenth century when ‘orientalism’ or interest in ‘exotic lands’ beyond Europe was a much-used theme in ballets and other theatrical productions. Recent media reports from Houston have suggested that the ballet contains ‘orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless cultural appropriation, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing’ and more.
In Australia, in addition to the middle act, ‘Kingdom of the Shades’, which has often been seen out of its context within the full-length ballet, we have seen three different productions of the full-length Bayadère. Two have been performed by the Australian Ballet—Natalia Makarova’s production staged by Makarova herself during the directorship of Ross Stretton and seen in 1998, and Stanton Welch’s production made originally for Houston Ballet, which is the one recently cancelled, staged on the Australian Ballet in 2014. As well, Greg Horsman produced a new version for Queensland Ballet in 2018.
I have no intention of commenting on the issues raised in Houston, although I am especially interested in ideas about cultural appropriation. But I will say that I thought Greg Horsman’s rethink of the work for Queensland Ballet was a winner from a number of points of view. Horsman has commented to me that he thought his restaging was not, in general, well received. Horsman’s version turned the story on its head somewhat and gave audiences much to ponder, so it is a shame that it hasn’t been shown and discussed more widely. Here is a link to my review of the Horsman production.
Philip Chatfield (1927–2021)
Philip Chatfield, who has died aged 93 on the Gold Coast just south of Brisbane, came to Australia in 1958 on the momentous tour by the Royal Ballet. He and his wife, Rowena Jackson, stand out in my memories of that tour, especially for the roles of Swanilda and Franz in Coppélia. Just a few months before they left London on that tour, Chatfield and Jackson married and at the end of the tour settled in New Zealand where Jackson was born. Chatfield became artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (1975–1978) and they both taught at the National Ballet School, now New Zealand School of Dance. Chatfield and Jackson moved to the Gold Coast in 1993 in order to be closer to family members.
Jennifer Shennan’s obituary for Chatfield is not yet available, but a link will be added in due course. UPDATE: Follow this link to read the obituary.
For more on the Royal Ballet’s Australasian tour of 1958–1959 see this link. There is contentious material contained in that post and in the several comments it received (although not about Chatfield and Jackson).
Sydney Choreographic Centre
The recently established Sydney Choreographic Centre, a project headed by artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and managing director Neil Christopher, has moved into its new premises in Alexandria, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. It will be the home of the Sydney Choreographic Ensemble and will offer a range of courses and open classes. A launch has been postponed due to the Sydney lockdown.
For more information about the Centre, and the courses that will commence once covid restrictions have been lifted, see the Centre’s website at this link.
And we danced
The third episode of And We Danced, a three part documentary charting the growth of the Australian Ballet, has now been released and all three episodes are currently available (for a limited time) on ABCiview. The second episode remains in my mind the strongest and most interesting, but the third episode does contain some interesting material and again has a focus on social and political matters as they have affected the Australian Ballet. A longer post on the third session follows soon but at this stage I can’t help but mention how moving I found the archival footage of Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Goldsmith was the original Odette in this production and her immersion in the role was exceptional.
For just the second time in 60 or so years of watching dance (and even performing it), I walked out of a show. I found Joel Bray’s I liked it but …. unwatchable. I left because I really couldn’t accept the way that various dance styles were described. Perhaps it changed later after I had left, I don’t know, but basically I am opposed to dance, in whatever format, being put down, often in a way that seems ignorant of the true nature of that format.
Queensland Ballet’s Joel Woellner promoted to principal
It was a thrill to hear that Queensland Ballet’s Joel Woellner has been promoted to principal artist. I have long admired Woellner’s dancing and especially remember his performance as the Widow Simone in Queensland Ballet’s production of Marc Ribaud’s La Fille mal gardée. After watching that show in 2017, I wrote:
Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers.
I look forward to seeing him in other leading roles at some stage soon (perhaps princely roles as I didn’t see him as the Prince in the recent Sleeping Beauty). In the meantime, in the image below he is on the left as Paris in Romeo and Juliet in 2019.
Adroit. Clever or skilful in using the hands. Houston Ballet
Stanton Welch continues to make work that keeps in mind that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. That work includes short films and, in an interview with Houstonia Magazine earlier this month, Welch remarked:
Film is a unique experience. It’s also extraordinarily disjointed. Usually, you run something for an hour, half an hour. This you run something for 12 seconds, 35 seconds. And then you shut down the entire shoot, you move, and relight. And you add Covid problems to all of that.
I especially admired a recent short film shot in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston called Adroit. Clever or skilful in using the hands. The dancers were indeed adroit and their Mozartian costumes were quite beautiful. But what was particularly pleasing was the way Welch used the space of the Gallery. His dancers did not just dance in the space but through it and it was constantly surprising to be confronted by new art as the dancers moved through doorways and around corners. Adroit made me want to visit Houston.
Adroit also reminded me of Life is a work of art, Liz Lea’s production for Canberra’s GOLD company and performed in the National Gallery of Australia. It was never filmed (as far as I know) but some scenes used the space of the Gallery as beautifully as did Welch and his team in Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In particular with Life is a work of art, I recall a section called ‘A gentle spirit’, which was somewhat different from Adroit in that we, the audience, moved through the space rather than watch the dancer do so. But the emotional attractiveness was similar.
Patrick McIntyre, the National Film and Sound Archive’s new chief executive officer.
The National Film and Sound Archive has announced the appointment of a new chief executive officer, Patrick McIntyre. Although McIntyre is moving on from Sydney Theatre Company, where he was executive director for 11 years, I remember him in particular for his role with the Australian Ballet where he was associate executive director (perhaps associate general manager in those days?) for several years. That was a time when I had quite strong connections with the Australian Ballet (thank you Maina Gielgud and Ian McRae) and so also spoke to McIntyre at various times.
Given his connections with dance in Australia (he also worked for a while with Sydney Dance Company), perhaps we can hope that he will take a particular interest in the exceptional dance material that is housed in the NFSA? That material includes footage from productions by the Bodenwieser Ballet; Ballet Rambert; the Australian Ballet; Sydney Dance Company (under Graeme Murphy); Australian Dance Theatre (especially under Jonathan Taylor and Leigh Warren); Danceworks (under Nanette Hassall); Queensland Ballet (especially works from the time of directors Charles Lisner and Harry Haythorne); extraordinary Ballet Russes material filmed by Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson and Dr Ewan Murray-Will; dance documentaries including examples of the work of outstanding film directors Don Featherstone and Michelle Mahrer, and even three documentaries that I had a hand in putting together in association with Sally Jackson; filmed interviews with choreographers, dancers and directors; filmed news items; and much more. There is unlimited scope for a research project to produce an exhaustive list of the Archive’s dance material for potential use by future researchers.
In the meantime the appointment of McIntyre, whose experience with cultural organisations is wide, seems an excellent one.
4 June 2021. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
I last saw Greg Horsman’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet) back in 2015. Then I made a flying, unanticipated trip to Brisbane because I needed to see a different version from the one created by David McAllister for the Australian Ballet. I disliked the McAllister production, which was not about Aurora to my eyes, and in which everything was overpowered by the design elements. I came away from that initial Brisbane experience much more satisfied that Aurora had a role in the ballet, and that the collaborative elements worked with each other to create a whole without one element dominating all.
Having all that out of my system, this time I was able to concentrate on other aspects of the production. Horsman has reimagined certain parts of the storyline and, while this is now a relatively commonplace procedure, it has to be done really well and with a sound reason for changing things. The main issue for me was making Carabosse too much like the other fairies. She wore the same style tutu as the others (except it was black and had transparent sleeves). But sometimes she danced together with the other fairies and somehow, despite representing the spirit of evil, she seemed to recede into the background as a major player in the narrative. The role was performed quite nicely, technically speaking, by Georgia Swan but I wanted a Carabosse who stood apart, strongly, from the others. It just didn’t happen.
The leading roles of Aurora and the Prince were danced by Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez. Yoshida danced pretty much faultlessly but didn’t seem to be as involved in her role as I have seen from her on previous occasions. On the other hand, Estévez was not only a strong performer in a technical sense (his entrance at the beginning of the second act—the Prince’s hunting party—was spectacular and drew applause), but he had the carriage and demeanour of a prince at every moment.
Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato were the Bluebirds for this performance. While Green and Iwamoto performed beautifully in terms of technique—and all those beats, including the series of brisés volés, need strong techniques—I was disappointed (and I often am). The story behind the Bluebird section is that he is teaching her how to fly and that she is listening to him. This backstory rarely comes across and it didn’t on this opening night. It was a shame about Iwamato’s costume, too. It had a very high neckline that practically removed his neck from sight.
The highlight of the evening for me was the Prince’s hunting party scene. Estévez I have mentioned. His friends, danced by David Power and Joel Woellner, and Gallifron the Prince’s tutor, a role taken by Vito Bernasconi, brought light and shade, some amusement, and good dancing and acting to the scene.
Choreographically Horsman has kept much of what we think of as the original movements, especially in the various pas de deux and solos. But where he has made choreographic changes there is little excitement. Much is predictable. Lots of arabesques. Lots of retiré relevé type movements.
So, all in all I found the production and the performance somewhat disappointing. In fact I began to wonder about remakes of well-known classics. While there will always be changes of one sort or another to any ballet, it takes an exceptional choreographer to do a remake. Those who succeed usually bring a completely new work to the stage. Liam Scarlett did it with his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Graeme Murphy has done it on several occasions. I thought Horsman did it (almost) with his Bayadère, despite the fact that there were certain issues associated in some minds with current thoughts re political correctness.
But this Sleeping Beauty was not a remake, just the same story with a few elements added, a few removed, and some changes to the way the story unfolded. It made me long for someone to do something completely new, or to revive an old fashioned production! Seeing it in 2015 was just a relief after the McAllister production. In 2021 perhaps my reservations were a result of having watched the Royal Ballet’s recent streaming of its hugely engaging presentation of the Ninette de Valois Beauty of 1946?