Sir Jon Trimmer in open conversation with Garry Trinder

by Jennifer Shennan
9 July 2019. New Zealand School of Dance         

An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.

The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.

Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, The Ragtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Sir Jon Trimmer (left) as Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in Gray Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not known

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlettt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.

We should tell our grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good place.

The clearly important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say Thank You.

Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’

Garry Trinder (right) asks a question of Sir Jon Trimmer. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019.

‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.

The sagas of company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.

Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’

Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’

Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.

A friend in the audience commented later—’One thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his weight in gold.

There are more stories to be found in Jon’s recently published memoir, Why Dance?and details of the Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.

Jon has also explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and truckloads of performance memories.

Also apparent is a deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’

Bill Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T. perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of love, ownership and appreciation.’

Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.

So what did Jonty do? He joined in the applause of course.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019

Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link.

West Side Story. Opera Australia

7 June 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

                                          The same only different.

c. 1590—Shakespeare sets Romeo & Juliet in c.1390 Verona (and the town is happy to remember that still). Poetry tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Montague and Capulet, loyalties demanded, much street fighting, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Sword fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

1957—Jerome Robbins, director/choreographer, Leonard Bernstein, composer, Stephen Sondheim, lyricist, and Arthur Laurents, book, set West Side Story in upper west Manhattan (though the area has since been somewhat gentrified). Dance tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Jets and Sharks, loyalties demanded, much street dancing, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Fist and knife fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

2019—Australian production opens in Wellington. Seasoned musical director/conductor, Donald Chan, holds brilliantly taut reins on a spirited performance from  the Australian cast and local Orchestra Wellington musicians.

Complex stage sets of towering buildings and balconies are moved seamlessly throughout the performance, so there is a further team out the back performing a dance we don’t see.

There is little spoken dialogue in the show but in a short sequence, two junior members of the Jets confess their fear of the imminent arrival of cops to investigate murder. The pathos struck in their brief confession of individual human emotion makes striking contrast with the kind of confident bravura so readily summoned for group display in the gangs’ dances and songs throughout the show. Of those the romping standouts are I like to be in America and Gee, Officer Krupke. 

The ballet sequence near the end, to Somewhere (perhaps too well-lit for the dream scenario it implies?) sits in marked contrast to the rest of the dancing, and we only hear but do not see the vocalist for that number.  (I would have welcomed the singer to stand in a royal corner box and thus to seem to sing on the audience’s behalf).

West Side Story rocketed to fame on Broadway as a big, big musical, and was soon  translated to a movie that became known worldwide. (Do you know anyone who didn’t see it?) Steven Spielberg is preparing a new movie version, this one to be set in Harlem, so that’s moving to 131st Street, filming to start about now.

Rita Moreno, unforgettable as Anita, the leading lady of the Sharks, won an Oscar for her performance in the original movie. She will play in the Spielberg film, a re-worked version of the character Doc, the shop-owner where Tony (aka Romeo) works.

In the cast we saw here, Doc, the only voice of reason, though no-one would listen until too late, was impeccably played by Ritchie Singer. In the sizzling role of Anita, Chloe Zuel was the knockout member of a large cast where everyone acquitted themselves with verve and commitment. Not a beat was missed throughout. Donald Chan saw to that.

(Makes you want to watch the movie again. Maybe after that I’ll listen to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet score?)

New Zealand apparently holds the dubious title of the per capita world record for the number of gangs and patched members. Territories are guarded, loyalties demanded, external authority rejected. From the occasional reports of events and encounters between them, one might imagine they also know personal storylines not too removed from the above. How we are is who we are.

West Side Story comes from classic stock. Dance followers may be interested, and perhaps surprised, to learn that Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, hitherto renowned for avant garde dance theatre, is also at work on a Broadway revival of West Side Story with entirely new choreography, production date 2020. Clearly it’s a work for our time, and for many times. 

Jennifer Shennan, 8 June 2019

All photos: © Jeff Busby

Romeo and Juliet. Sarah Lamb as Juliet, Vadim Muntagirov as Romeo. ©ROH, 2015. Photographed by Alice Pennefather

Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet

4 May 2019 (matinee). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

It is always exceptional to see a work by a choreographer who is not the familiar one from one’s previous experiences of that work. Having seen John Cranko’s production of Romeo and Juliet countless times, as performed by the Australian Ballet, along with several versions by other choreographers, the Royal Ballet’s production of Kenneth MacMillan’s version of the Shakespearian tragedy was indeed an exceptional experience. I was lucky too, I think, to have seen Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in the leading roles. While I thought Lamb’s interpretation was a little too child-like, I was fascinated by the changing emotions displayed by Muntagirov. In addition, the partnership between Lamb and Muntagirov was very secure technically and, as a result, MacMillan’s often swirling, curving, diving lifts were realised beautifully.

Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in 'Romeo and Juliet'. The Royal Ballet. © 2015 ROH. Photographer Alice Pennefather

(Above and below) Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet. © 2015 ROH. Photographer Alice Pennefather

The Macmillan version of Romeo and Juliet received its premiere in 1965. It is a gutsy production from the beginning when the market place of the opening scene buzzes with activity and is filled with people who seem so real (and was that a side of a dead cow being carried through the crowd on the way to the market?). The sense of the real continues through to the middle scenes when Mercutio and then Tybalt die from sword wounds and do so in such a dramatically convincing fashion, and on to the end where Romeo’s and Juliet’s death scenes leave us emotionally exhausted.

Then, Nicholas Georgiadis’ sets have little of the romantic to them. The Capulets live in a fortress, as we see when the guests arrive for the Capulet ball. And, as Jann Parry tells us in her program notes, the inclusion of a fortress looks back to the Franco Zeffirelli theatre production, made for the Old Vic in 1960-61, when Zeffirelli had the Capulets live in such a structure as protection from enemies and in order to preserve their family treasures. Then the crypt in which the Capulets place the apparently dead Juliet is spectacular with its huge stone sculptures and its flights of dark stairs of stone. The production has a kind of rawness to it and just speeds along.

Muntagirov danced superbly showing off his spectacularly light and seemingly effortless jumps; his wonderfully controlled turns, including some in attitude devant as well as attitude derrière, along with some great manèges with various showy steps. But what I especially admired about his Romeo was the way he made his emotions so visible. A highlight was when he watched a wedding parade enter the market place (to the accompaniment of mandolins) in the early moments of Act II. As he stood downstage, almost motionless, we could read that he was thinking that he and Juliet could and should follow that very example. Another was his undisguised anger at what Tybalt had done to Mercutio, and his determination to avenge the death of his friend.

Sarah Lamb is not my favourite Juliet I’m afraid. I know Juliet is a mere 13 or 14 years old but, within the MacMillan structure, I would have preferred a more feisty Juliet. But with her beautifully proportioned limbs and sound technique she danced superbly and was a joy to watch from that point of view

I enjoyed Thomas Whitehead’s commanding presence as Tybalt, especially in the scenes in the market place where his dislike of Romeo was constantly visible, and in the ball scene where his carriage of the upper body marked him as being a proud and aristocratic Capulet. And incidentally, the corps danced beautifully in the ball scene as they tilted their bodies slightly back from the waist upwards in a show of historical deportment. Other dancers to admire especially were Marcelino Sambé as a vibrant Mercutio, Téo Dubreuil as a constantly concerned Benvolio, and Christina Arestis as a very haughty Lady Montague who clearly could not bear the Capulet family.

This production was highly engaging and I love to ponder its character beside the others that I have seen—those of Cranko, Graeme Murphy, John Neumeier, Stanton Welch, and the two versions that take particular liberties for one reason or another—those of Sasha Waltz and Natalie Weir. (I have no review on this site of the Cranko production. It has been a while since the Australian Ballet showed it).

Michelle Potter, 7 May 2019

Featured image: Sarah Lamb as Juliet, Vadim Muntagirov as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2015. Photographed by Alice Pennefather

Karina González and Connor Walsh in Houston Ballet's 'Romeo and Juliet', 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Romeo and Juliet. Houston Ballet

30 June 2016, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

My review of Stanton Welch’s spectacular Romeo and Juliet for Houston Ballet is now available on DanceTabs at this link. In relation to the DanceTabs review, below is an image of Karina Gonzalez as Juliet and Jessica Collado as Lady Capulet showing the ‘exclamation mark’ arabesque I mention in the review.

Karina González and Jessica Collado, Houston Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, Melbourne 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Karina González and Jessica Collado, Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, Melbourne 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

While in the review I didn’t go into much detail about the children who appeared in the work (courtesy of the Australian Ballet School), I am am curious to know the name of the fair-haired boy who led the Blind Man’s Buff game, and who appeared whenever children were required. He had such charisma for someone so young.

Michelle Potter, 3 July 2016

Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet

11 March 2016, the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

What a pleasure it was to be sitting in the auditorium of Copenhagen’s beautiful, old Royal Theatre waiting for the curtain to go up on a production of Romeo and Juliet—John Neumeier’s version too, which I had never seen: such a sense of anticipation not just because for me it was a different production, but also because it was about ten years since I last saw the Royal Danish Ballet. What a sense of occasion too because just as it was time for curtain up Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, a true balletomane, appeared in the Royal Box and the audience rose as one to welcome her.

But to the show …

The Neumeier Romeo and Juliet is said to have been partly inspired by John Cranko’s production, so well known to Australian audiences during the period of Maina Gielgud’s directorship of the Australian Ballet.  And yes, there is a spectre of Cranko somewhere there. But on the other hand, Neumeier’s production is quite distinctive. Choreographically it is absolutely fascinating, especially in the way it contrasts the movements of the elders of the Capulet and Montague families and those of the younger folk across the social strata. Both groups are given what I can only say are beautifully eccentric movements, especially for the arms and upper body. The elders often use a highly formalised vocabulary, while the young people have a freedom that sometimes verges on the wild. Gorgeous. And how beautifully did the dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet respond to this vocabulary!

Ida Praetorius as Juliet was completely entrancing. She showed off a stellar technique—the highlight for me came when she was refusing the attentions of Paris and at one point, in desperation, tossed off an amazing, perfect double turn in arabesque with arms flung upwards and body slightly tilted. But not only did she dance with such perfection, her characterisation of Juliet was brilliant. She played the role as it was written—she was a thirteen year old. She often seemed slightly awkward of limb, she often made her youth clear by seeming not to know how to behave in every situation, and her nervousness and vulnerability were clear, especially when she executed that wonderful stumble on the last few stairs as she entered the ballroom for the Capulet ball. But throughout, her youthful, slightly crazy love for Romeo was always obvious.

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

As Romeo, Andreas Kaas was as ardent and dramatic in love as one could hope. His enthusiasm and desire for Juliet showed in his every movement. He rushed to her. He could scarcely hold back his longing for her. Kaas and Praetorius, together, made the two characters come alive in a way I have never seen before. It seems like a partnership made in heaven from both a dancerly and dramatic point of view.

Another stand-out performance came from Sebastian Haynes as Mercutio, dashing and charismatic as a character, thrilling as a dancer. His death scene was powerfully moving and made more so by the feisty way Romeo took on Tybalt after the stabbing. I also admired Susanne Grinder as Lady Capulet. She moved with such strength and such elegance, sweeping her way through Neumeier’s formal choreography and wearing her bright orange gown with style and aplomb—a true aristocrat. And I have never taken all that much notice of the entourage that enters the square to try to restore some peace to the conflicts between the Capulets and the Montagues. But in this production Poul-Erik Hesselkilde was a towering presence as the Prince of Verona. Mostly he stood still, centre stage, but he was so in command of the role that his power spread across the stage and out into the auditorium.

There were so many magical moments, too, inserted by Neumeier to make more sense of the story. The potion that the friar gives to Juliet, for example, we know is not a deadly poison but Neumeier introduces a group of street performers who, in a commedia dell’arte manner, mime the effect the liquid will have. Juliet and the friar stand motionless, in a kind of freeze frame, in the act of giving and receiving the vial.

As is usual in Royal Danish Ballet performances, the presence of children in the crowd scenes was always noticeable. I loved the way the adult dancers in the corps de ballet interacted with them, shielding them from fight scenes, making sure they hurried off during the more gruesome moments. And as for the corps, I loved that they looked as though dancing was their life and not just their job.

Costumes and sets were by Jürgen Rose, also responsible for the design of the Cranko production. But his work for Neumeier had a very different feel and was often unusual in the way Neumeier’s choreography was unusual. His striking red wedding dress with white turban for Juliet was quite startling, for example, and the church for the wedding, which was created as plain brown flats slid beautifully and noiselessly into place, had all the simplicity of a Cistercian abbey church. Nothing was overdone but everything contributed beautifully and economically to the unfolding story.

This Romeo and Juliet was such a striking production, so beautifully danced by the entire company and musically thrilling—it just took my breath away. The evening sped by and it was by far the most exciting and captivating performance I have seen for years, anywhere in the world.

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: Costin Radu

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

Michelle Potter, 15 March 2016

Dance diary. August 2013

  • Romeo and Juliet: DVD release

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet was a controversial addition to the repertoire of the Australian Ballet in 2011. It has been one of the most discussed productions on this website and I recall being pleased when I was able to watch a recording where I could rewind sections to appreciate better both the choreography and the dancing. That ‘rewind experience’ was, however, on a plane and looking at a tiny screen was not ideal. Now the ABC has released a DVD so we can now have the luxury of watching the production at our leisure. It features Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in the leading roles.

Graeme Murphy's 'Romeo & Juliet' DVD cover

Here are links to previous posts and comments to date:  original review; a second look; on screen.

  • Ballets Russes exhibition in Moscow

I have received some photographs from the opening of Valery Voskresensky’s Ballets Russes exhibition in Moscow, one of which is below. I am curious about the two costumes on either side of the world map. Scheherazade and Prince Igor? I welcome other comments of course.
Ballets Russes exhibition, Moscow 2013
Mr Voskresensky, who receive a number of awards at the opening of the exhibition, also sent a link to an article in Isvestia and as I know there are some Russian speakers amongst readers of this site here is the link. There are also some very interesting costumes shown in one of the Isvestia images.

  • Heath Ledger Project

In August I was delighted to record an interview with NAISDA graduate Thomas E. S. Kelly. Kelly gave a spirited account of his career to date. Kelly graduated from NAISDA in 2012 and has since been working as an independent artist. His work has included several weeks in Dubai with the Melbourne-based One Fire Dance Group when they appeared at Dubai’s Global Village celebrations earlier this year.

  • Press for August

‘Symmetries’. Review of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra program, Dance Australia, August/September 2013, pp. 44; 46. An online version appeared in May [but is now no longer available].

‘The vision and the spirit’. Review of Hit the floor together, QL2 Dance. The Canberra Times, 2 August 2013, ARTS p. 8.[ Online version no longer available].

‘And the awards go to…’. Article on the Australian Dance Awards. The Canberra Times, 6 August 2013, ARTS p. 6. [Online version no longer available].

‘What happens when two worlds collide’. Story on Project Rameau, Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The Canberra Times, 31 August 2013, Panorama pp. 6–7. [Online version no longer available].

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2013

Natalie Weir on R & J

When I recorded my first ‘On dancing’ segment for ArtSound FM I was not aware that Natalie Weir’s much lauded work R & J, made for her Brisbane-based Expressions Dance Company, was on a whirlwind tour of the eastern states. The tour includes a performance, one only, at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre and, had I known, I would have mentioned it as something for dance lovers in Canberra and surrounding regions to anticipate during May. So, as an update to that program I spoke to Weir about R & J and the rigours of one night stands, and about company she now leads.

David Williams and Elise May in 'R & J', Photo: Chris Herzfeld
David Williams and Elise May in R & J Act III, Expressions Dance Company. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions, 2012

R & J is Weir’s take on the well-known story of Romeo and Juliet. But rather than following one story over an evening-length work, Weir tells three separate love stories each of which takes place in a different era. It begins with a story set in the present day; it flashes back to the 1800s for the second; and the final story comes back to the 1950s. With a cast of just six dancers, a production crew of four and an indispensable truck driver there is not much room for manoeuvring. And yes, Weir agrees that it is a rigorous schedule for all. But, says Weir, when she made the work in 2011 she knew she wanted a work that could be shown at major venues and that could also tour regionally. It is designed so that it can be bumped in and out in a day. And this is mostly what happens on the current seven week regional tour, which takes in eighteen different cities from Hobart in the south to Rockhampton in the north.

Weir was appointed artistic director of Expressions in 2009 and is slowly beginning to realise her unique vision for this small contemporary company. She says the first part of her vision was to build a small ensemble of dancers with whom she could work well and who understood her approach.  ‘I have employed dancers straight from tertiary training, dancers who are in their thirties and beyond and dancers in between those age groups’, she says. ‘I wanted a range of ages and maturities in the company. That was an essential’.

The second part of her vision, which she says grew from some of the frustrations she encountered while working as an independent artist, was to have the capacity to commission music specifically for her works. R & J has a score by John Babbage, saxophonist with the Brisbane group Toplogy. Although the R & J regional tour uses recorded music, when the work premiered in Brisbane in 2011 Topology played onstage and having live musicians working in this way is part of Weir’s vision too. Her next work, When time stops, will premiere in Brisbane in September and has a commissioned score from Iain Grandage, which will be played live on stage by members of the chamber orchestra, Camerata of St John’s.

After a long career as an independent choreographer, which has been distinguished by commissions from most Australian ballet and contemporary companies, as well as from international companies including American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet and Hong Kong Ballet, Weir has come into her own as director of Expressions.

Michelle Potter, 7 May 2013

R & J is at the Queanbeyan performing Arts Centre on 14 May.
Follow the link for dates in other regional centres.

Update 18 May 2013: See my review of the show at this link.

Romeo and Juliet on screen

I finally managed to see the recording of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet made by the SBS subscription channel Stvdio and recorded on 21 September 2011 at a live performance in Melbourne. Posts relating to this work continue to attract visitors to this site and it was interesting to notice that the number of visitors accessing the site from Adelaide rose dramatically when the work was shown there recently. Adelaide visits continue to remain high and the Romeo and Juliet posts continue to be the most accessed posts overall. Whatever opinions of the work might be out there, there is little doubt that it has inspired incredible interest amongst the dance community.

I was especially pleased to have the opportunity of watching the ballet close up through the Stvdio recording and also to have the opportunity to rewind certain sections that were especially powerful, or that attracted me for a particular reason.

It was rewarding, for example, to be able to watch several times Madeleine Eastoe’s stunning entrance into her bedroom early on in the work. There she is running on pointe so fast that her feet start to look blurred. And those lovely over-the-head claps as she jumps in the air, and those little piqué steps backwards, create such joyous, light as a feather dancing.

The recording made judicious use of a small number of close ups in this early section, which highlighted Elizabeth Hill’s beautiful portrayal of Juliet’s nurse. Hill watches her charge with such a caring look as Juliet tries her ball gown against her young and blossoming figure, and the rapport between them is clearly shown on their faces. Then eventually, off Juliet runs again, jumping on to a chair that happens to be in her way before she springs onto her bed. It’s wonderful choreography and wonderful acting and an absolute delight to watch again.

I also loved the serenity of the wedding scene and watching the Murphy touches unfold: the journey to the site of the wedding with Juliet walking across the shoulders of a group of black clad holy men; the duet with the monk that uses the feet as a point of contact between the two; and the playful role the train of Juliet’s wedding dress plays in her duet with Romeo during the ceremony. Murphy’s signature is there in full force!

In addition, I really took pleasure watching Adam Bull as Death and still think this role is one of the strong points of the production. Not only does the role act as a powerful through-line, it also acts as an element of dramatic irony. We know what is going to happen right from the beginning when Death picks up a bunch of lilies, a symbol of both purity and death and a recurring motif throughout the work, from the ground in the piazza as the piece opens.

But the scene I thought had the most dramatic power was Juliet’s visit the monk to seek a solution when it seemed that marriage to Paris was her ultimate fate. Murphy makes this a much more significant scene in the ballet than did Cranko in the version that we have been watching in Australia since the 1970s. In the Murphy production the story is told with choreographic and force and through powerful gestures, and we see Murphy using another of his signatures: Juliet is transported through to the country of the holy man held aloft by several black clad figures who carry her through the air in a display of expansive soaring movements.

The conclusion to this scene occurs when Death enters Juliet’s bedroom and stands behind her to slip on her nightdress, and also in the following, shuddering trio when Death places himself between Juliet and Romeo. Again we know there is no hope.

On a less positive note, the final desert scene is not my favourite part of the ballet and a close up look did nothing to make it look better. As one comment has indicated on the original post, Lady Capulet did look decidedly out of place in her high fashion gear, as beautiful as it was, stumbling around with high heels in hand.

In general, though, I thought this recording was beautifully and sensitively made. The more I look at this Romeo and Juliet the more interesting it becomes and the more I wonder about the difficulty we face with the ‘shock of the new’ when we watch a new dance production, in all its fleeting beauty, for the first time.

Michelle Potter, 24 June 2012

Here are links to the first post, and the second.

Roméo et Juliette. Paris Opera Ballet

20 May 2012, Opera Bastille, Paris

Sasha Waltz’s production of Roméo et Juliette, originally made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2007, is about as far from other danced interpretations of those ‘star-cross’d lovers’ that I can imagine. In program notes for the 2012 staging Waltz herself said that the only production with which she was familiar was that of Maurice Béjart but that she never thinks about other productions when making a work. She simply draws on herself for inspiration. Whether this is possible or not is a matter of contention but, from the point of view of an audience member, it is close to impossible not to situate a work with the title Romeo and Juliet within the context of one’s previous experiences in the theatre.

In her production, Waltz reduced the named characters to three: Romeo, Juliet and Friar Laurence. She then focused on the links between love and death and the redemptive power of the death of Romeo and Juliet for their feuding families. She maintains that her work is not a narrative work but an emotional one. Yet the chorus sings a narrative. Not only that, it is more than tempting to interpret the roles taken by some of the dancers—those without specified roles—as other characters in the story (and the ballets) we all know. And there is very clearly a ballroom scene (more a party in this case) that is quite literal with dancers (women in tutus, men in shiny suits) miming eating, drinking and other party-going activities. So, for me, the question of is there or isn’t there a narrative was never really resolved.

That said, Waltz’s Roméo et Juliette was a breathtaking, highly theatrical production in many ways. Set to the Symphonie dramatique of Hector Berlioz, it employed three soloists and the chorus of the opera company―mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac was outstanding―as well as twenty-two dancers from the ballet company, including on the night I went two étoiles, Aurélie Dupont as Juliet and Hervé Moreau as Romeo. It was the Paris Opera machine at its best, utilising its stars from both the opera and ballet companies to produce a collaborative work of magnificent proportions.

The work was quite spare visually, and effectively so, with the set attributed to Pia Maier Schriever, Thomas Schenk and Sasha Waltz. It appeared to be two large white quadrilateral-shaped platforms, one placed on top of the other but with the top one overlapping the bottom one in some sections. But as the work progressed the top platform was pulled upwards and it was eventually apparent that the two platforms were hinged and they opened into a single, huge quadrilateral platform. The dance action largely took place on these platforms in their various stages of unfolding. Occasionally the singers appeared there too, but mostly they performed at the side of the set. Costumes, by Bernd Skodzig, for singers and dancers were for the most part black or white and emphasised Waltz’s focus on a duality between life and death.

But in many other ways the work was a huge disappointment. While there were some beautifully fluid groupings of dancers, and times when the wide sweep of the body through space was exciting to watch, I found Waltz’s choreography repetitive and often unbecoming with its frequent karate-style movements and its angularity. The pas de deux between Dupont and Moreau was perhaps a highlight. But to tell the truth, while it was flawlessly executed by two exceptional dancers, the choreography seemed cold to me and only rarely allowed Dupont and Moreau to show their humanity and their vulnerability.

Scenically and musically this Roméo et Juliette was spectacular. As ever the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet were also a joy to watch. But so much of the way the show was conceived and choreographed did not support the exceptional qualities of the dancers and singers and production personnel. In the end it seemed like an evening of missed opportunities and mixed messages.

Michelle Potter, 22 May 2012