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.

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, I don’t know, but basically I am opposed to dance, in whatever format, being put down, often in a way that is 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

And we danced. Act 2, 1980-1999

And we danced, a three part documentary from the ABC produced by WildBear Entertainment, looks at the first six decades of the Australian Ballet. The series makes use of archival footage held by the Australian Ballet, and that footage is complemented by photographs and interviews with former and current company staff and dancers, and with commentary from Ita Buttrose, current chairperson of the ABC.

I was originally going to wait until all three episodes had been screened before making comments. But the second episode, covering the two decades of the eighties and nineties, was so full of memorable moments that I decided I just had to comment on the second episode and mention some of those moments—the ones that especially moved me in some way.

It was always going to be hard to cover in 58 or so minutes everything of significance that occurred over two decades, especially when the two decades covered in the second episode were tumultuous in so many ways. There was the strike of the early 1980s and the various changes of artistic directorship that ensued; the AIDS epidemic; Paul Keating’s Creative Nation and the strong arts funding that developed under Keating; the era of Maina Gielgud and her eventual departure from the company; the arrival of Ross Stretton and his very different management style and artistic aesthetic; and more.

And we danced needed to be selective in what it covered in detail, but what I found especially engaging was the examination of how the company began to move from a pioneering company in its earlier years to one that was a mature arts organisation. While there were many ways in which an Australian identity began to emerge, and various social and cultural contexts were mentioned, particularly poignant were the comments by Stephen Page as he talked about Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet working together on Rites under the directorship of Ross Stretton.

Then, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the incredible range of choreography that those of us who were lucky enough to have been audience members at the time were able to experience. One of the most interesting sections concerned the last program curated by Maina Gielgud before she left the company. Her triple bill of Stanton Welch’s Red Earth, Meryl Tankard’s The Deep End, and Stephen Page’s Alchemy was so strongly Australian and the comments on why (or how) this program happened were well contextualised. And of course it was great to see footage of Stanton Welch’s Divergence, another exceptional work from the Gielgud period.

I also enjoyed the discussion of Spartacus. It has never been one of my favourite ballets, neither in the Laszlo Seregi (Australian Ballet premiere 1978) version nor the more recent one by Lucas Jervies. But looking at the brief footage shown of the Seregi production I was bowled over by Steven Heathcote in the main role. The drama he injected into every movement was just brilliant. And then there was the wonderful story of the poster with the sexy image of Heathcote that was consistently stolen when the production was taken to the US.

Poster image of Steven Heathcote in Spartacus

It was also interesting to see and hear comments from former dancers and directors, especially Marilyn Rowe and Marilyn Jones who played major roles in the 1980s. More of the full project later.

Michelle Potter, 26 July 2021

Featured image: Scene from Stanton Welch’s Divergence. Still from And we danced.

The Stretton Legacy

As Canberra gets ready to host the 2013 Australian Dance Awards as part of the city’s centenary celebrations, it is inevitable and absolutely appropriate that thoughts are turning to those dancers, teachers, directors and others who have made a major contribution to dance in the city in some way. Canberra-born Ross Stretton comes instantly to mind.

When Stretton died in 2005, following a career as a dancer in Australia and the United States, as the sixth artistic director of the Australian Ballet, and briefly as director of London’s Royal Ballet, I gathered together a list of the repertoire Stretton chose for his four and a half years at the helm of the Australian Ballet. It was published in Brolga, No. 23 in December 2005. As this article is not available via the online issues of Brolga, I am posting it here ahead of the ADAs.

Stretton marked his directorship with a catch phrase, a slogan of sorts: ‘Creativity, Energy, Passion’. It was often thrown back at him, sometimes with a touch of sarcasm, and it became known as the ‘CEP factor’. But behind it was Stretton’s passionate belief that dance was not superficial; it was an art form that in its greatest moments engaged mind, body and soul. Looking back at the repertoire list, which includes an astonishing twelve new commissions in the space of just over four years, as well as new acquisitions for the company from the existing international repertoire, it is clear that the CEP factor was hard at work.

Looking again there are a few works that haven’t been seen since Stretton’s directorship that I would love to see back: 1914 (despite the fact that it was not in general well-reviewed), Dark Lullaby, In the Upper Room, Theme and Variations and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude are among them.

Below is a Jeff Busby shot of Elisha Willis in 2000 in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and below that is a link to the original Brolga article (with one or two corrections to the original). Other corrections if needed or comments are welcome.

Elisha Willis in 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude', 2000. Photo: Jeff Busby
Elisha Willis in The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, 2000. Photo: © Jeff Busby

‘The Stretton Legacy’. First published in  Brolga. An Australian Journal about Dance, December 2005, pp. 31–34.

Michelle Potter, 24 June 2013

Por vos muero. The Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill Concord is currently in its Sydney season. It’s at the Opera House until 30 November.

Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 is as startling as ever, although the cast I saw did not manage to achieve the same degree of technical precision and sense of purpose that made the opening night in Melbourne this past August such a brilliant occasion. Alexei Ratmansky’s Scuola di Ballo remains pantomime for those who like their ballet that way. As for Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero, it continues to give and give of itself in a way that only the very best works of art can do.

Por vos in its Australian Ballet production goes back to the directorship of Ross Stretton who introduced it to Australian audiences in 2000. Who can forget the ravishing Felicia Palanca in the leading female role in that first season? Her passion for her role knew no bounds. But then who can forget Daniel Gaudiello on opening night in Melbourne this year with his capacity to show to advantage the intricacies of Duato’s choreography?

On the second matinee of the Sydney season no dancer really stood out, which allowed the opportunity to think more about the work itself, especially its seamless yet choreographically idiosyncratic duets, its use of humour and its delicious sensuousness. In fact it sent me back to the DVD to look more closely at how Duato had structured the work and at his use of props, especially the masks in his dance for six women and his decorative screens at the back of the stage space and the way they were used by the dancers to link each section.

But in addition I turned on the DVD’s subtitles and saw for the first time an English translation of the narrator’s Spanish words. The work stands brilliantly by itself—no translation of the words is necessary to feel that it is about love and passion in their many manifestations. Duato also explains on the DVD that everyone danced in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain: dance was not thought of as an art but simply as a way of expressing oneself on pretty much any occasion. Such a desire to dance is also inherent in the choreography without our being told. Both the words of the narrator and Duato’s explanation simply confirm what we know. Por vos is an exceptional work.

But the words of the narrator are deeply affecting. As six dancers, clothed in stripped back skin-coloured costumes, move off and give up the stage for a final solo by the leading female dancer, whose consort appears in the closing moment to enfold her in his arms, we are told:

For thee I was born/Through thee I have life/For thee I must die/And for thee I die.

Por vos is an exceptional work.

Michelle Potter, 23 November 2009

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Por vos muero, 2009. Photo: © Jim McFarlane.