New Zealand Dance Highlights 2021

by Jennifer Shennan

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.

Scene from Tabitha Dombrowski’s Reset Rerun, New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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?

Jennifer Shennan, 21 December 2021

Featured image: Scene from Helix in Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

Queensland Ballet in 2022

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!

Artists of Queensland Ballet in Natalie Weir's 'We who are left', 2016. Photo: David Kelly
Artists of Queensland Ballet in Natalie Weir’s We who are left, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

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.

Yanela Pinera in 'Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: David Kelly
Yanela Piñera in Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

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.

Michelle Potter, 28 September 2021

Featured image: Portrait of Li Cunxin

Meryl Tankard, Elena Kats-Chernin at the piano, and dancers of the Australian Ballet discuss the creation of 'Wild Swans', 2003. Photo: © Regis Lansac

New dance initiatives for Australia

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.

Felicia Palanca as Eliza in Meryl Tankard's 'Wild Swans'. The Australian Ballet, 2003. Photo © Regis Lansac
Felicia Palanca as Eliza in Meryl Tankard’s Wild Swans. The Australian Ballet, 2003. Photo © Régis Lansac

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.

The HOTA precinct, Gold Coast, Queensland

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.

Michelle Potter, 11 September 2021

Featured image: Meryl Tankard (right), Elena Kats-Chernin at the piano, Philippe Charluet as camera operator, and dancers of the Australian Ballet discuss the creation of Wild Swans, 2003. Photo: © Régis Lansac

Meryl Tankard, Elena Kats-Chernin at the piano, and dancers of the Australian Ballet discuss the creation of 'Wild Swans', 2003. Photo: © Regis Lansac

Dance diary. July 2021

  • La Bayadère. A problematic ballet?

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.

Front cloth for Queensland Ballet's 'La Bayadere'. Design Gary Harris
Gary Harris’ front cloth for Greg Horsman’s 2018 production of La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet

  • 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.

Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2002. Photo: © Jim McFarlane
  • Late addition

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.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2021

Featured image: Ako Kondo in Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Dance diary. June 2021

  • 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.

Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

  • 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.

Patrick McIntyre. Photo: Sydney Theatre Company and Nic Walker

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.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2021

Featured image: Portrait of Joel Woellner, Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet (2021)

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.

Carabosse (centre) and the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

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.

Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

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.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato as the Bluebirds in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

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?

Michelle Potter, 7 June 2021

Featured image: Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Chiara Gonzalez and Mia Heathcote as the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Liam Scarlett (1986–2021)

One of the most exceptional choreographers of the 21st century, Liam Scarlett, has died aged just 35. How lucky we were in Australia to have had the opportunity to see three of his works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dangerous Liaisons and No Man’s Land, all performed by Queensland Ballet. In addition, Scarlett’s new staging of Swan Lake, made for the Royal Ballet in 2018, is readily available on DVD.

Our New Zealand colleagues saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream before we did in Australia, first in 2015, and Royal New Zealand Ballet is reviving the work later in 2021. RNZB’s response to Scarlett’s death included the photo below with a special caption that read, ‘In loving memory of our friend and colleague Liam Scarlett. His creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream filled our studios with joy, and our stages with magic.’

Liam Scarlett and Lucy Green on the set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

There have been many comments from around the world on the subject of his death with calls for explanations to be given by various organisations, but nothing can take the place of the words of those who worked with him and those who saw his productions and were astounded by his remarkable abilities. In addition to the posts on this website at this tag and RNZB’s words above, see for example comments from dancers Jack Lister and Laura Hidalgo on the Limelight tribute, and from Karen van Ulzen, editor of Dance Australia, who wrote in a weekly email newsletter, ‘I adored Liam Scarlett’s choreography. When the Queensland Ballet brought his A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Melbourne a few years ago, it was one of those rare occasions when you know you are completely in the hands and imagination of a master.’

Scarlett’s death is a huge loss and we no longer have him beside us giving us works that demonstrate his astonishing talent. Like most of us I am heartbroken, but I’d rather not cast blame or demand explanations but remember the joy he has given to audience members and dancers alike.

Michelle Potter, 23 April 2021

Featured image: Pool of Siloam, Leura, New South Wales, 2021. Photo: © Neville Potter

Dance diary. March 2021

  • Promotions at Queensland Ballet

Neneka Yoshida and Patricio Revé were both promoted during the Queensland Ballet’s 60th Anniversary Gala held in March 2021, Yoshida to principal, Revé to senior soloist. Both have been dancing superbly over the past few years. Yoshida took my breath away as Kitri in the Don Quixote pas de deux at the Gala and Revé I remember in particular for his performance as Romeo in the 2019 production of Romeo and Juliet, although of course he also danced superbly during the Gala.

Neneka Yoshida as Kitri in Don Quixote pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Congratulations to them both and I look forward to watching them continue their careers with Queensland Ballet.

  • Fjord review, issue 3, 2020

Some years ago I wrote an article about Fjord Review, the first issue. At that stage it was based in Melbourne (or so I thought anyway), although now it comes from Canada. Its scope is international and its production values are quite beautiful. I was surprised to find (by accident) that its most recent print issue contained a review of my book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. See further information about this unexpected find at the end of this post.

The print version of issue #3 also had some articles of interest about dance in Australia. ‘Dance break’ is a short conversation with Imogen Chapman, current soloist with the Australian Ballet; ‘Creative Research with Pam Tanowitz’ is a conversation with the New York-based choreographer whose latest work will premiere shortly in Sydney as part of David Hallberg’s season, New York Dialects; and ‘A.B.T. Rising’ discusses four recent dance films including David, ‘an ode to David Hallberg’.

As to the review of the first issue mentioned above, some of the comments received following that post are more than interesting!

  • Coming soon in Canberra. The Point

Liz Lea is about to premiere her new work, The Point, at Belco Arts Centre, Canberra. It will open on 29 April, International Dance Day.

Nicholas Jachno and Resika Sivakumaran in a study for The Point, 2021. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The Point. performed by a company of twelve dancers from across Australia and India, pursues Lea’s interest in connections across dance cultures, an appropriate theme for any International Dance Day event. It also looks at interconnections in design and music and takes inspiration from the designs of Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, designers of the city of Canberra. A further source of inspiration is the notion of Bindu—the point of creation in Hindu mythology.

  • David McAllister and the Finnish National Ballet

Early in 2021, the Finnish National Ballet was due to premiere a new production of Swan Lake by David McAllister with designs by Gabriela Tylesova. The premiere was postponed until a later date. Read about it at this DanceTabs link.

And on the subject of McAllister, the National Portrait Gallery has a new photograph of McAllister and his partner Wesley Enoch on display in its current exhibition, Australian Love Stories. Looks like McAllister has his foot in an Esky in this particular shot! I am curious.

Peter Brew-Bevan, Wesley Enoch and David McAllister 2020. Courtesy of the artist. © Peter Brew-Bevan
  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Madelyn Coupe, ‘Light and dark of the human heart.’ Fjord Review, issue 3, 2020. pp. 43-45.
Unfortunately this review is not available online. Read it, however, via this link (without the final image, which is of Dame Joan Sutherland in Lucrezia Borgia).

I will be giving a talk on Fredrikson for the Johnston Collection in Melbourne in June. Details at this link.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2021

Featured image: Patricio Revé in Études. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

60th Anniversary Gala. Queensland Ballet

5 March 2021. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

The opening night of Queensland Ballet’s 60th Anniversary Gala began with film footage examining, briefly, aspects of the contributions made to the company by the five artistic directors who have led the company to date: Charles Lisner, founding director (1959-1974); Harry Haythorne (1975-1978); Harold Collins (1978-1997); François Klaus (1998-2012); and current director Li Cunxin (2013-present).

The brief film was followed by a grand défilé choreographed by Paul Boyd and featuring dancers of Queensland Ballet and its associated school, Queensland Ballet Academy. Boyd’s choreography showcased the dancers skilfully and beautifully and the défilé began with a truly charming introduction. While carrying out small, on the spot promenade movements, two pairs of very young dancers, one pair positioned at each side of the downstage area, introduced the first of the older dancers. Each of those four young people showed remarkable stage presence and suggested that Queensland Ballet Academy has its focus not just on technique but on how to maximise one’s presence onstage.

Closing moments of the grand défilé. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The following program was a varied one and to my eyes, while all seven works had a reason for being part of the celebration, some stood out a little more than others.

Charles Lisner’s charming Chopin pas de deux, which opened the main section of the Gala, was well performed by Yanela Piñera and Joe Chapman. Piñera danced with her usual style and panache and the two dancers were able to connect with each other beautifully. Chapman carried off the quite difficult lifts with strength and aplomb. It was great to see him back in Australia after his stint dancing in Canada, although there were times when his ‘in between’ movements were less smooth than I would have wished. One step needs to lead to another without it being noticeably ‘in between’, and this didn’t always happen with Chapman.

Yanela Pieñra-and-Joe Chapman- n Chopin pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo:© David-Kelly
Yanela Piñera and Joe Chapman in Chopin pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez gave a dramatic rendition of François Klaus’ Cloudland pas de deux. Heathcote continues to impress as a dramatic dancer. Jacqui Carroll’s Tavern Scene from her 1982 work Carmina Burana was also filled with drama and passion. The three solos, danced by Vito Bernasconi, Liam Geck, and Rian Thompson, were spectacular in the power and passion that emanated from the dancing. My particular bouquet went to Bernasconi—he attacked the choreography like a man possessed.

The absolute standout item was the Don Quixote pas de deux danced brilliantly by Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos. These two dancers are so suited to each other in height and in their similar, outstanding technical abilities. Yoshida’s technique was faultless and, in particular, her balances throughout and her fouettés in the coda were astonishing. Similarly Ramos stunned with his turns and his elevation and jumps. But there was something else happening. I have never seen Kitri and Basilio engage with each other the way Yoshida and Ramos did. The way they looked at each other, Yoshida’s glances to Ramos in particular, seemed to indicate a burgeoning relationship, a knowingness. It was very exciting to watch.

Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos in Don Quixote pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Other items on the program were a pas de deux from Harold Collins’ Lady of the Camellias, the finale to Act II of Klaus’ The Little Mermaid, and the full-length (and it was SO long) Études by Harald Lander. With the exception of Carmina Burana, which not surprisingly was danced to recorded music, the dancers performed to music played by Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, Camerata, with Nigel Gaynor conducting. I continue to admire the way Gaynor conducts for dance. The music is always a part of the whole, never seeking to dominate.

The strength of the program not only revolved around some great dancing in particular works, but also on the words of Li Cunxin in an opening speech from the stage and in the section of the opening footage in which he appeared. Li was himself a brilliant dancer (I can still see him in certain roles), but he is also an unsurpassed speaker. He is committed, he is persuasive, he is caring about the art form of dance, his thanks to those involved have an honesty to them, and he is determined to keep moving ahead. Li builds on what has gone before but in his hands Queensland Ballet has moved ahead in leaps and bounds.

Michelle Potter, 6 March 2021

Featured image: Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos in Don Quixote pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Cy-gents. Queensland Ballet, 2020

60 dancers: 60 stories. Queensland Ballet. Week 4

Art must prevail

Very belatedly, here are my thoughts on the fourth and final week of Queensland Ballet’s month of fundraising.

What a treat was the hilarious Cy-gents. And what a wonderful name! The Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake Act II has long been used, most often by men dressed in tutus and showing hairy legs, as a caricature of ballet. But QB’s Cy-gents was something else. Dressed in male practice attire, with the addition of a couple of baseball caps worn backwards (sideways perhaps is better), Liam Geck, Ari Thompson, Luke Dimattina and Kohei Iwamato danced to an arrangement by Janette Mulligan of the Petipa choreography for those Little Swans.

Each dancer performed in a different setting but editing of the four individual performances meant that sometimes we saw different arrangements on screen—each of the four dancing separately across the screen, four shots of one dancer, or some variation of that. Choreographically it was close enough to what we know and love but far enough away that it looked (mostly) as if it were made for male dancers. And the ending! I’ve never seen a Swan Lake cygnet fall into the ‘lake’ before. A very special three minutes or so.

I was taken too by Laura Tosar’s Nostalgia, which she said was danced in ‘the living room of her youth’. What an amazing house that was. It had to have been a set-up? But whatever, it was fascinating.

Laura Tosar in Nostalgia. Queensland Ballet, 2020

Queensland Ballet’s initiative in setting up this project, and the input from the dancers, music team and other support staff throughout June was absolutely brilliant. I only managed to mention around one sixth of what was on offer, but every video clip had a special quality. The company deserves every dollar it attracted.

Michelle Potter, 13 July 2020

Featured image: Cy-gents. Queensland Ballet, 2020