17 November 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
A second viewing of Icons, the Australian Ballet’s triple bill tribute to 50 years of choreographic exploration by the company, confirmed much of what I thought from my previous viewing. In particular I think it was a mistake to revive The Display. Despite well danced performances by Rachel Rawlins as the Female, Brett Simon as the Leader and Ty King-Wall as the Outsider the work overall looks old-hat. The kind of behaviour on show in the ballet was perhaps an accurate view of male/female relations in Australia in 1964 but it doesn’t have the shock value it had 48 years ago—times change. And while Katharine Hepburn might have been turned on by lyrebirds, I’m not sure any of the Australian Ballet dancers are, or even pretended to be. What’s more much of Robert Helpmann’s choreography looks a little like that from a musical (and not such a good one at that), while Sidney Nolan’s set, so evocative in its day, lost much of its appeal on the tiny stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, especially from J row in the stalls. Memory is a funny thing of course but I also seem to remember the lighting and general visual ambience being softer, hazier and thus more affecting. But I may be living in my dreams! In any case the revival has been a huge disappointment.
Gemini on the other hand still looks fabulous and its choreography was given great treatment by Leanne Stojmenov, Juliet Burnett, Andrew Wright and Kevin Jackson. While I was attracted by the opening night cast in Melbourne by their cool, technical reading of the work, not to mention their spectacular energy, the cast I saw in Sydney brought a whole new element to it. Not to say that there was not also a strength of technique with this cast—there was—it was beautifully danced by all four. A duet between Stojmenov and Jackson (who seems to get better and better every time I see him) was remarkably powerful with its dramatic lines and enfolding of bodies one with the other; and Burnett has an unusual mixture of fragility and strength that brought a new quality to the work. But there was a hint of the sinister, or at least something disquieting or provocative, and more than a hint of emotion in the performance from this cast. For me this Gemini had a feeling of humanity about it, as well as being a ballet about contemporary technique.
As for Beyond Twelve, well my companion said as we stood up to leave: ‘Graeme Murphy makes ballet for adults!’ With all its slapstick humour, its phallic references, its comments on youthful immaturity, and its poking fun at Australian society it is still an immensely moving ballet. And the trio between the Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty remains one of Murphy’s most heart-warming choreographic accomplishments, as does the beautifully staged ending full of resignation, or is it wistfulness, or is it just time to move forward?
30 August 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
The Australian Ballet’s Icons program is a truly exciting triple bill. Every work has particular interest historically and, while one really doesn’t measure up, two of the three are thrilling to watch. The absolute standout in terms of dancing is the middle work on the program, Gemini, Glen Tetley’s work made on the Australian Ballet in 1973. It was danced on opening night by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes, with Jones in particular performing as if there were no tomorrow.
Against a modernist set of coloured horizontal slats by Nadine Baylis, Gemini unfolds as a series duets and solos embodying powerful, dynamic movement. Of the women, Jones is cool but bold, assertive, a powerhouse of energy. Her manège of grands jetés with arms stretched heavenwards in an open fifth position (à la Isadora in La Marseillaise) was breathtaking. Scott is more elusive, sinuous and deliciously sensuous. Of the men, Bull had that little extra movement in the chest and pelvis—in the torso I guess—that drew the eye towards him whenever the men were onstage. Hawkes’ performance lacked the same zing but was nevertheless a pleasure to watch. When Tetley was in Australia in 2003 to stage Voluntaries he told me that creating Gemini had made him love the energy of Australian dancers. I think he would have been thrilled with the electrifying way in which Jones, Scott, Bull and Hawkes performed.
Closing the evening was Graeme Murphy’s evocative Beyond Twelve, a work first shown in 1980 and a real bottler of an Australian ballet showing all Murphy’s theatricality, humour and unique choreographic hand. Beyond Twelve tells the story of a boy’s transition from football-playing youth to adolescent dancer and finally on to mature artist facing the uncertainties of life beyond dance. Brett Chynoweth, Calvin Hannaford and Andrew Killian took the three main male roles of Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty and their trio in which we see their lives intertwining was a real highlight. Showing the passage of time in a choreographic sense is one of Murphy’s great strengths and this trio is no exception. Brooke Lockett, a coryphée with the company, danced the role of First Love and played it with just the right feeling of delight in the pleasures of youth.
Beyond Twelve is an immensely moving work (as well as being full of wit and humour) and nothing captures that feeling more than when, as the ballet closes, we see the mature dancer joined momentarily by his first love. And just as it looks like they will remain together, a figure in evening dress appears in the background and the girl moves away to join the other man, her Escort. Murphy’s sense of theatricality is brilliant here, partly in his placement of the three characters on the stage, but also in the instant realisation the moment generates that life is full of changes.
Despite its historical interest, the big disappointment of the evening was The Display, Robert Helpmann’s 1964 production based on his and Katharine Hepburn’s sighting of the mating dance of the lyrebird. The Display opened the program and perhaps it was inevitable that a work so entrenched in Australian culture of the 1960s would never translate well into the twenty-first century. But I didn’t think it would be quite so problematic. Nothing to me looked like an Australian picnic in the bush. The girls, so pretty with their Renoir hairstyles and pink dresses, could have been peasants in Giselle—and incidentally, Sidney Nolan, whose designs were ‘refurbished’ for the occasion, wanted the girls’ dresses to be the colour of ‘dog biscuits’, which certainly wasn’t the case with this production. In addition, the boys looked like princes as they pointed their feet, stretched their legs, and stayed so thoroughly within their classical ballet heritage. I’m not sure that, when playing footy, drinking beer and punching people up, men look like that.
Kevin Jackson as the Outsider missed the point, I think, that this character was meant to be so culturally different from the rest of the men. A red shirt and blue trousers aren’t enough to show that he was meant to be an Italian in Australia in the 1960s, a time of significant European migration. Australians had scarcely heard of coffee then let alone of European attitudes to women. The role needs a different physicality as well as costume to get the point across and Jackson didn’t seem to me to be much different from the rest of the men. But then perhaps that was a result of the other men behaving as if they were dancing a nineteenth-century ballet.
The saving grace was Madeleine Eastoe as the Female. She made Helpmann’s choreography look quite respectable despite a series of fouettés that Helpmann suddenly dropped into it all for no apparent reason. And she managed to get across the sense of sexual arousal that needs to be apparent as, at the conclusion of the ballet, the Outsider leaves her after his attempted rape and the Male (the lyrebird) comes forward to cover her with his tail feathers.
It was interesting to see Barry Kitcher, Bryan Lawrence and Garth Welch from the 1964 cast of Display come onstage to take a bow during the curtain calls. They were joined by Julie da Costa who danced the Female in a later 1980s production. There was no note in the program to say that they had been involved in coaching the dancers. The Display certainly needed some good coaching to make it work.
Musically the program was extraordinarily diverse. Malcolm Williamson’s score for The Display remains as beautiful as ever with its quivering, bush sounds, and was perhaps the highlight of that ballet on this occasion; Tetley’s choice of Hans Werne Henze’s Symphony No. 3 for Gemini was inspired with music and choreography so well attuned; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, whose movements had been reordered by Murphy to fit the storyline of Beyond Twelve, was played with customary elegance by Stuart Macklin.
Despite The Display having major problems, I thought this was a good triple bill. In my mind it sits within the spirit of the best of triple bills where there is a bit of everything, including the ‘serious’ work in the middle and the ‘feel good’ work to go home with.
Postscript: Looking back at a review of Beyond Twelve that I wrote for Dance Australia way back in 1994 (with David McAllister, Steven Woodgate, Greg Horsman and Vicki Attard in the leading roles), I mentioned that Horsman danced the role of Beyond Twenty-Five, rather than calling it Beyond Thirty. I’m not sure when the name change happened, but it is interesting to speculate that times have changed in (almost) twenty years and perhaps thirty is now the new twenty-five? Unless I got it wrong in 1994?
Update: Here are my comments after another look at the program in Sydney.
This is an expanded version of an article first published in ‘Panorama’, The Canberra Times, 7 July 2012, p. 15 under the title ‘an icon of dance’, and in The Saturday Age, 7 July 2012, p. 24 with the title ‘In matters theatrical, Helpmann’s ideas soared above Patrick White’s bizarre flights of fancy’.
As part of its forthcoming Icons program, the Australia Ballet will restage Robert Helpmann’s 1964 work, The Display. I am curious to know how this work will stand up choreographically and theatrically now that close to 50 years have passed since it was conceived. The old black and white ABC studio recording shows a work that could still be gripping today with the right cast and informed coaching.
But I am also fascinated by the stories that surround the creation of The Display. Helpmann claimed, so the Australian Ballet’s current promotional material says, that The Display was inspired by a dream he had in which he saw his friend and theatrical colleague, Katharine Hepburn, naked on a dais surrounded by lyrebirds.
Helpmann and Hepburn came to Australia together in 1955 as the leading actors with a Shakespearean company sent out from London by the Old Vic. Hepburn, who toured in Australia for a period of about six months, was fascinated by the habits of the lyrebird, which she saw on a trip to Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges, and she insisted that Helpmann come with her to watch the lyrebird in its mating dance. Helpmann later included a note in a program for The Display in which he maintained that the movements he eventually choreographed for the character of the lyrebird in his ballet were those ‘learned after many hours of watching this beautiful creature’. So the background was certainly there for Helpmann to dream the dream he is alleged to have had.
The storyline of The Display concerns a group of young Australians on a picnic in the bush. The men practise football moves and Helpmann drew on the services of Ron Barassi* of Melbourne and then Carlton Football Clubs to coach the dancers for this section of the ballet. In old-fashioned Australian style, the girls rarely interact with the men but sit together, chat and prepare the picnic. We first see the lyrebird, who is named the Male in the list of characters, dancing behind a gauze at the beginning of the ballet. Three main human characters emerge—the Leader of the young men in the group, the Outsider and the Girl. The Girl and the Outsider are attracted to each other but the men have been drinking and inevitably there is a fight over the Girl.
The girls in the group flee the scene and ultimately the Outsider is left lying on the ground following the aggressive actions of the Leader and his mates. The Girl returns to the scene of the picnic, as does the Outsider, and eventually the Girl is left lying exhausted on the ground following an attempted rape by the Outsider. The Male reappears and, with his tail feathers fully displayed, enfolds the girl into his plumage.
The Display explores themes of hostility and aggression in Australian society and Helpmann recorded that he had attempted to show the brutality that can emerge from gang behaviour. Some of Helpmann’s colleagues have also suggested that elements of the story are autobiographical. William (Bill) Akers, who created the dappled lighting for the ballet, recalled in an oral history interview in 2002 that as a youth Helpmann was thrown into the sea at Bondi by a gang who thought his clothing was ‘sissy’. He was, according to Akers, wearing plus fours at the time. Akers suggested that The Display reflected Helpmann’s feeling that he had always been an outsider in society
The ballet is strongly symbolic and the work’s sexual elements, both overt and suggested, occasionally incurred the wrath of some sections of society. Newspaper clippings in Helpmann’s scrapbooks indicate that, when The Display was shown in Glasgow as part of the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival, the Glasgow Presbytery made attempts to have the ballet banned, a move that was only narrowly defeated.
But the story behind The Display has more to it than what Helpmann and others have recorded to date. In fact, Patrick White was approached to write a scenario for the ballet and a cache of letters, which I chanced upon around ten years ago in a National Library collection, indicated that when White submitted the manuscript it was not to Helpmann’s liking, and not to the liking of the then artistic director, Peggy van Praagh, either. They rejected the manuscript. But what was contained in White’s submission remained an annoying mystery until just recently when, while looking for something else, I chanced upon a manuscript in the National Library entitled ‘A scenario for a ballet by Patrick White’.
What this manuscript reveals is that Helpmann and van Praagh had excellent theatrical reasons for rejecting White’s scenario. White’s story takes place in two separate settings, the Australian bush where initially a picnic takes place, and a ballroom in the country mansion of a family called Brewer. The Brewer daughter, named as the Girl in White’s cast list, is engaged to an Italian Count. The girl has an obsession with a Lyrebird and during the picnic leads the Count into the bush where they encounter the bird. At the end of the ball that takes place in the mansion, the Girl returns to the bush. During this scene it is revealed that she is naked (stage naked) under her black raincoat. She encounters the Lyrebird and with him dances what White calls ‘a dance of consummation’. The Italian Count follows, is enraged at what he sees, rapes the Girl and then strangles her. He is then arrested by a detachment of policemen.
Helpmann may well have given White an initial plot outline as the first excursion into the bush is redolent of Hepburn taking Helpmann with her to visit the sanctuary of the lyrebird, while the nakedness of the Girl when she returns to the forest even recalls Helpmann’s alleged dream. The Italian Count too may well be Helpmann’s Outsider, although he is an outsider on account of his nationality and only partly so by his behaviour as described in the White manuscript.
But despite the fact that Helpmann apparently disliked what White presented, he appears to have borrowed many features of White’s story, including perhaps the gauzes that became part of Helpmann’s production and that lift to reveal the sanctuary of the lyrebird. White’s manuscript contains all kinds of stage directions including directions regarding gauzes.
However, Helpmann, as the remarkable man of the theatre he was, clearly removed the more bizarre and the more literary features from the manuscript he received. ‘When the ballet opens’, writes White, ‘a grotesque fête-galante version of an Australian picnic is about to take place’. He continues, ‘As the dancers appear they have the air of embarking on something reprehensibly unusual. They are inclined to mock at their surroundings and to treat the whole occasion as a huge joke. LADIES are over-dressed in satirical versions of contemporary clothes … The OLDER PERSONNAGES are pompous and would-be refined, the YOUNGER PEOPLE rather gauche, if not hobbledehoy’. In The Display that went onstage in 1964 there are no Italian counts, no feeling of hobbledehoy, no pomposity, no murders, no policemen for example. Helpmann distilled the scenario and in so doing created a story that could be told simply and clearly through dance. White’s elaborate and somewhat convoluted story with its many literary descriptions of events and people was not an easy scenario to translate successfully into dance. Even White’s three suggestions for a title, ‘The stroke of feathers’, ‘The feather breast’, or ‘The double engagement’, have nowhere near the instant attraction of Helpmann’s eventual choice, The Display, an ornithological term referring, in the case of The Display, to the lyrebird’s mating dance.
The Display was not the first all-Australian ballet as Helpmann claimed when speaking to oral historian Hazel de Berg in 1964, but it did have an Australian creative team of the first order. Complementing Helpmann’s choreography were designs by Sidney Nolan and music by Malcolm Williamson. The lighting design by Akers included a number of new initiatives in theatre lighting. The work was visually and aurally evocative and an exceptional collaborative effort. Its strength also partly lay in Helpmann’s ability to create theatre by reducing a story to its essentials.
The ballet was dedicated to Katharine Hepburn but Patrick White’s involvement was, to my knowledge, not mentioned in 1964‒1965 programs and appears not to have been mentioned in published biographies of Helpmann.
* Barassi is recorded as saying: In 1964 I had the great pleasure of coming to know Robert Helpmann through my involvement on his ballet ‘The Display’. In the dance there was quite a lot of football played and Robert asked me to attend rehearsals and advise the ballet dancers on the correct ways of playing Victorian Rules. I did so and although the dancers were impressively athletic, I immediately noticed that they were throwing the football around the room like rugby players. I told Robert this and he was absolutely mortified. From there he worked solidly to get every detail right, as his demand for excellence and accuracy was uncompromising.
In a recent postI recorded some notes about the Australian Ballet’s 1965 production of Robert Helpmann’s ballet Yugen. I was interested in the design for the production and that the costumes were designed, and some made, at a distance.
On the other hand, local people made other elements of the design, especially the headdresses and, I have since discovered, probably the cane props that were used in the ballet. These latter items were made, it seems, by a Melbourne-based, probably Chinese artisan. I recently came across a design for a golden tree by Kristian Fredrikson for a production that I have not yet been able to identify. On it there is a note scribbled in pencil, which may or may not refer to the tree and which says ‘Chinese shops in Lit[tle] Bourke [Street] near Swanston [Street] (Yugen) Australian Ballet – sea capes (man who did cane work)’.
But even more interesting material relating to Yugen surfaced accidentally while I was searching through some other archival material. I came across a collection of correspondence from late 1964 between William (Bill) Cronshaw, Geoffrey Ingram and Noël Pelly, then business manager, administrator and publicity manager respectively of the Australian Ballet. The letters and memos I came across concerned the design commission for Yugen. It seems that the original commission went to South Australian artist Lawrence Daws, not Desmond Heeley whose work we eventually saw on stage. Although there is no commissioning letter, and so far no designs by Daws have come to light, a letter written in early December from Cronshaw to Ingram states, ‘I received today a plot plan from Lawrence Daws on the design he has submitted to Helpmann, though this, of course, is dependent on his approving the designs.. There follows a discussion about costing the designs and a note that Bill Akers had some doubts about their viability from a practical point of view.
Two weeks later a note from Pelly to Ingram states that Pelly was enclosing a second print of the promotional brochure, which Pelly says ‘contains no reference to the designer of “Yugen”.’ The brochure is not included with the letter in this case but it seems obvious that in the end Helpmann did not approve the designs by Daws. In a postscript to the letter Pelly notes that he and Peggy van Praagh had had a drink with Daws and his wife in Adelaide a day or so before Pelly sent the letter. Pelly went on to say that Daws ‘seems to have taken the matter extremely well but is acutely curious as to his replacement!’ Three days later, on Christmas Eve 1964, a memo from Stefan Haag of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust to Cronshaw, van Praagh, Akers and Ron Sinclair, notes that the designs for Yugen would be despatched from London ‘next weekend’. A somewhat rapid piece of design work from Desmond Heeley it seems, unless, of course, Helpmann never intended to accept the Daws designs.
Lawrence Daws had spent a large part of 1964 travelling in Asia, including in India, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaya. He returned to Adelaide later in 1964. How the commission for Yugen came about is unclear at this stage and the artist has not been willing to comment.
Not all the reviews of the eventual production of Yugen were positive. Andrew Porter, writing in The Financial Times after the work was shown in the United Kingdom in 1965 wrote, for example, ‘It is a piece of japonaiserie with screens and fans and parasols, and a Noh plot.’ In Australia it was compared by one critic (a little unfairly I think) to ‘a highly refined Japanese Ziegfeld Follies’ and I can’t help thinking that Daws, whose work is introspective rather than decorative, simply did not fit the overt theatricality Helpmann demanded in his works. As Cheryl Stock has written in an article in Brolga in 1996, for Helpmann ‘style and image, the spectacle and the dramatic took precedence over form and structure’; and perhaps it might also be added over any kind of deeply thought through approach.
Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre: Kathrine Sorley Walker (Alton: Dance Books, 2009). Available in Australia from Footprint Books or any good bookseller.
Robert Helpmann is a popular subject for biographical and other writing. Apart from the fact that he was clearly a showman both on and off stage making his exploits a source of fascination, he also was quite meticulous about documenting his career. He kept scrapbooks of his early stage and film appearances and, as he became more influential in the theatrical world, gave countless interviews and appeared in many documentaries. There is much material on which to base books, articles and feature pieces. The bibliography and notes to Anna Bemrose’s biography of Helpmann, published in 2008, give some insight into the amount of material that has already been written about Helpmann. Yet writers continue to be drawn to him and his exploits and undoubtedly this situation will persist. Kathrine Sorley Walker’s Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre is the latest in this line-up of published works.
The strength of Kathrine Sorley Walker’s book is that she was in the theatre for some of Helpmann’s most significant early productions and performances. Her best writing in this book lies, therefore, in her descriptions of Helpmann’s interpretation of roles whose performances she witnessed, especially when she describes the physical aspects of those interpretations. So, for example, she writes:
‘His Don Quixote, in fact, was an interpretation of dignity and power, a very noble portrait. Speaking for myself, I was awed by his controlled action, his vivid quality of stillness. As in Rake [The Rake’s Progress] and Miracle [Miracle in the Gorbals], he brought into play his ability to convey, without any sense of strain, a tremendous emotional effect. This was done by turns of the head, half-movements, the crook of a hand, a light in the eyes, a slight tremor in the muscles of the face. In contrast, a few swift moments of dancing, a wild beating at the bars of an imaginary cage, were immensely telling’.
This is wonderful observational writing.
Similarly, Sorley Walker reminds us of the qualities of Helpmann’s partnership with Margot Fonteyn. She writes:
‘The magnificent poetry and true Romantic understanding of the Fonteyn-Helpmann partnership in Giselle has been forgotten in the wake of the eulogies about the Fonteyn-Nureyev partnership. In Act II, the dream-like fluency of the dancing, the supernatural inevitability with which they allowed the drama to unfold were so absorbing that no one would have thought of disturbing the mood by applause until the final curtain. There were neither showpiece moments nor any sense of endeavour, merely an eloquent demonstration of skilfully unified music, dance and mime’.
Sorley Walker has also made use of material in her personal collection, as well as material in collections in the United Kingdom not usually quoted or referred to in other writing. So her extracts from an unpublished article by British dance critic A.V. Coton on Helpmann’s theatrical qualities and on his value to the Australian Ballet make interesting reading. So do her comments on an unrealised film production of The Sleeping Beauty largely based on treatment details housed, Sorley Walker records, in the Theatre Museum in London.
But the book also has its frustrating elements. Some relate to the way the book has been edited. It is not an enticing book to pick up randomly for a browse prior to a possible purchase. There are 27 chapters and three appendices but none has a distinguishing heading to it. Thus there is no way of knowing by looking at the list of chapters at the beginning of the book what is contained in the text. Would it appeal to someone without a particular interest in Helpmann? Maybe not.
Other frustrations relate to the way Sorley Walker has written her reminiscence of Helpmann. The book becomes at times an account of what happened next, which sometimes has the effect of encouraging the reader to skip past some sections looking for more of the informed analysis that is the most satisfying feature of the book. More than occasionally there is also a surfeit of quotations from others. In the space of just over a page of writing on The Merry Widow, for example, there are relatively lengthy quotations from four Australian critics – John Cargher, Jill Sykes (two), Leonard Radic and Neil Jillett (two). I would rather know in more depth what Kathrine Sorley Walker as the author of the book thought, or at least as well as what Cargher, Sykes, Radic and Jillett thought.
Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre deals not just with Helpmann’s dance career, which has provided all my examples in this review. In a slim volume of 162 pages of text it also covers his work as an actor on stage and in film and deals with his personal life as well. On this latter point Sorley Walker’s writing includes references to Helpmann’s long-terms relationship with his partner Michael Benthall, to his work and friendship with Katharine Hepburn and to his relations with his Australian family.
Dance books rarely make much money for their authors or publishers, although Mao’s last dancer may be a recent exception. The advocacy of Dance Books in persisting in publishing in a difficult field is more than admirable. And the gems that Sorley Walker presents at various intervals throughout Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre, gems coming from an informed standpoint as a result of having ‘been there’, make the book a worthwhile addition to the personal libraries of those interested in the arts.
Michelle Potter, 25 October 2009
Featured image: Book cover (detail). Robert Helpmann: a rare sense of the theatre.
Note: A review of ‘Mim’: a personal memoir of Marie Rambert, also published recently by Dance Books, will appear on this website shortly.